Sunday, 25 January 2015

Doing justice to the other

Berry's Kosher Village

Kelly Oliver (2004) argues that contemporary debates on multiculturalism and justice have focused on the notion of ‘recognition'. This is evident, for example, in the work of Charles Taylor and Axel Honeth. By exploring what such ‘recognition’ might mean, Oliver questions whether the struggles of marginalised or oppressed peoples, groups or cultures, or, more generally, those who have been ‘othered’ by a dominant culture, are indeed struggles for ‘recognition'.

Oliver suggests that testimonies from the aftermath of slavery and the Holocaust insist upon more than being ‘recognised', i.e. as ‘being seen’. Such testimonies bear witness to a pathos beyond mere visibility. Those who have suffered oppression, slavery and torture, and, more widely, processes of othering and exclusion, do not seek recognition solely in the form of visibility. They are also seeking to initiate, instantiate or constitute, through recognition or beyond recognition, witnesses to horrors that are beyond processes of seeing or perceiving. 

In short, while seeking to overcome the processes whereby they are rendered invisible, those who have suffered oppression, exclusion or othering are seeking recognition in the form of retribution or requital and compassion. To adapt the insights of Eve Sedgwick (2003: 67-91), those who have suffered oppression, exclusion or othering are seeking to constitute a ‘they' of witnessing, an ‘independent' grouping or court of opinion, by means of which it becomes possible to pass judgement upon the events they have undergone and the experiences they have suffered.

In so constituting a ‘they’ of witnessing, it becomes possible to disavow any potential complicity with the oppressor, excluder or otherer, while also establishing the obligation to ensure that such oppression, exclusion or othering does not recur. 

Oliver argues that such ‘recognition beyond visibility’, which implies constituting a ‘they’ who can equally bear witness to the events and experience to which those who have been oppressed, excluded or ‘othered’ have been subjected, means rejecting those conceptions of recognition which rely upon the Hegelian master-slave relationship. 

For Oliver, if recognition is conceived as a process whereby it is conferred on others by a dominant group, then it simply repeats the dynamic of hierarchies and privilege and prolongs the domination. If oppressed, excluded or othered people are simply making demands for recognition, as visibility, from a dominant group, as those who are empowered to confer it, then the hierarchy of domination is simply re-enacted, re-instated and sustained. 

As Oliver summarises: if the processes of recognition require a recogniser and a recognisee, then this reproduces the master-slave, subject-object, self-other, included-excluded, superior-inferior hierarchies in a renewed form. 

Furthermore, Oliver suggests, the need to demand recognition from a dominant culture or group is itself a symptom of the pathology of oppression. In this pathology, a need emerges in the oppressed, excluded to othered to be recognised by their oppressor, the very people predisposed to fail to recognise them, binding all (oppressed and oppressor) in a repeated, cyclical relationship of oppression: oppression oppresses oppressors and oppressed, although differently experienced, through the processes of 'failure-to-recognise’, as 'inability-to-recognise’: to be unable to bear witness to, and to validate, the other’s experience.

Through the internalisation of stereotypical figures of inferiority and superiority, the oppressed develop a sense that they are lacking something that can only be given or granted to them by their superiors/oppressors. In this way, struggles for recognition, and theories which embrace those struggles, may presuppose, and thereby perpetuate, the very hierarchies, domination and injustices that they seek to overcome. 

Views from the Light Railway

A question may arise here, which concerns the relation of Oliver’s characterisation of conflict, e.g. that between oppressor and oppressed or that between the dominant and the marginal, and Lyotard’s notion of ‘the differend’. Is the process of seeking ‘recognition', as Oliver defines it, analogous to a ‘litigation’ in Lyotard’s sense? For Lyotard, 
“As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgement applicable to both arguments. One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy” (Lyotard, 1988: xi)
The relationship between the oppressed, excluded or othered and the dominant cannot be settled to the satisfaction of the former groups in terms of the dominant perceptions and judgments, both because those perceptions and judgments fail to ‘see’ the oppressed, excluded or othered; and because those dominant perceptions and judgments cannot, therefore, do justice to the experience of the oppressed, excluded or othered. While the dominant perceptions and judgments do not accept the legitimacy of the oppressed, excluded or othered, this does not mean that such groups do not have legitimacy. 

Does domination complicate the situation defined by Lyotard. While each side may have a legitimate argument, the dominant group does not recognise the legitimacy of those who have been othered. It is not simply a case of incommensurability. Where is the forum that would allow the othered to articulate their case ‘outside’, so to speak, the field of domination? Does Oliver’s conceptualisation permit the constitution of such an impossible place through the processes of ‘bearing witness’?

Mirror City

For Oliver, witnessing has a double sense. It is both a process of perceiving as eye-witness to that which can be seen in what has happened and is happening; and a process of bearing witness to what cannot straightforwardly be ’seen’ but can be understood to have happened and be happening. From this assumption, Oliver develops a model of subjectivity, or more properly inter-subjectivity, based on the addressee-response, i.e. dialogic, structure of witnessing in its double sense: eye-witnessing the ‘seen'; bearing witness to the ‘phenomenal'.

Oliver argues that oppression and victimisation undermine subjectivity, i.e. inter-subjectivity, by diminishing the capacity for address-an-response, i.e. dialogue. The structure of address-and-response, for Oliver, is key to the processes of subjectivity, i.e. inter-subjectivity. 

Thus, in its double sense, witnessing can be judged according to the register of accuracy to (commonly agreed) historical facts of the event or situation, i.e. to the question of truth and eye-witnessing, on the one hand; and according to the register of adequacy to the existential, experiential or phenomenological dimensions of the event or situation, i.e. the question of justice and bearing witness.

There exists, then, in witnessing, according to Oliver, a tension between eye-witness description of what has happened or is happening, judged within the frame of being true to an historical resort, in whatever form, and bearing witness to an phenomenological experience, judged in the frame of doing justice to that phenomenological horizon. 

Oliver poses this distinction as a contrast between a subject position, in an historical field of inter-subjective relation, i.e. in a determinate world, a subjectivity, as a field of experience, articulated through a phenomenological engagement with that historical world (or worlds). 

Through witnessing, the subject, i.e. as inter-subjectivity, is doubly constituted: first, in the inter-subjectivity of finite historical situations or contexts, i.e. as inter-subjective positional relating; and, second, in the structure of infinite addressability and response-ability, i.e. as inter-subjective experiential or phenomenological relation. In this chasm of positional relation and phenomenological relation, although Oliver does not concern herself with this dimension, the body stands as vehicle (for agency) and as medium (for inter-corporeity or inter-corporeality). 

Oliver elaborates her sense of subjectivity and subject position in the following terms. By subjectivity she intends a sense of self as an ‘I’, as an agent. By subject position, Oliver intends a position in society and history as developed through situated social relationships. [Aside: Here we may need a more fully developed account of the actantial character of (situated) agency, on the one hand, and of the (inter-corporeal) psycho-dynamic ‘I’, on the other hand].

The (dialogic) structure of (inter-)subjectivity is that which makes taking oneself as an agent or a self possible. The structure of subjectivity, for Oliver, is founded on the possibility of address-and-response, as a dialogic structure. 

A question which arises here is the extent to which this dialogism is to be understood in Bakhtinian terms. As Readings (1996: 155) interprets Bakhtin, dialogue would not be merely the exchange of roles between a first sender who sends a message to an empty receiver and, in (re-)turn, becomes such an empty receiver for the respondent message. Both sender and receiver, addressor and addressee, are already ‘full’ of words, language, discourse. The phenomenological experiences of addressor and addressee, their apperceptive backgrounds, exist encoded in their inner and outer speech and action. The address-and-response structure alluded to by Oliver is inter-discursive inter-subjectivity.

The structure of inter-subjectivity, in other words, is founded on the obligation to do justice to the other’s experiential, phenomenological consciousness. As Readings (1996: 162) explains, 
“No individual can be just, since to do justice is to recognise that the question of justice exceeds individual consciousness, cannot be answered by an individual moral stance. This is because justice involves respect for the absolute Other, a respect tat must precede any knowledge about the other.”
To the extent that this accords with Oliver’s characterisation of the constitution of subjectivity, as inter-subjective, Readings concurs that “respect for an absolute Other” in inter-subjectivity, precedes “any knowledge about the other”, as subject position in a field of socio-historical relations, i.e. Oliver’s ‘subject position’.

Thus, Readings (1996: 162) continues, 
"To be hailed as an addressee is to be commanded to listen, and the ethical nature of this relation cannot be justified. We have to listen, without knowing why, before we know what it is that we are to listen to. To be spoken to is to be placed under an obligation, to be situated within a narrative pragmatics.”
Thus, one aspect of Oliver’s witnessing, the attending to what cannot be ‘seen’ in the form of bearing witness is understood by Readings in the form of an obligation: bearing witness is an obligation that founds subjectivity as inter-subjectivity.


Lyotard, J.-F. (1988). The Differend: phrases in dispute. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Oliver, K. (2004). Witnessing and Testimony. Parallax, 10 (1), 78–87. Available at [Accessed 28 December 2014].

Readings, B. (1996). The University in ruins. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sedgwick, E.K. (2003). Around the performative: periperformative vicinities in nineteenth-century narrative. In: Touching feeling: affect, pedagogy, performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 67–91.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Solidarity, the self-divided and othernesses


Michelle Tokarczyk (2014: 865-867), writing from Goucher College, Baltimore, points out that ‘solidarity’ is a core term in working-class literature and culture. While middle class culture emphasises individual identity and achievement, working-class culture values collective identity and action.

Nevertheless, solidarity based on worker identification is frequently undermined by divisions along racial and ethnic lines; and, indeed, gender lines. The demographic diversity of the USA, and increasingly in some European countries, limits the potential of worker solidarity. 

The tensions between working-class solidarity and ethnic and racial (and gender) identity pervade the history of the USA. Labour literature, which enjoyed its heyday in the USA in the 1930s, often addressed these tensions through depictions of workers coming to class consciousness by recognising affinities with workers of others races and ethnicities. 

Political and social developments since the 1980s have prompted some writers to examine workers’ conditions and to uncover new forms by means of which to do so. As Janet Zandy makes clear, since the 1980s, the conditions of American workers, have deteriorated significantly due to downsizing, globalisation, automation and reliance on contingent labour. The situation is not radically different for many European workers.

If the working classes are to regain lost ground, they will have to recognise their common interests, by moving from filiation (tree-like, hierarchical structures) to affiliation (rhizome-like, open alliances), from identification with race or ethnicity to identification of shared conditions (common conditionality) and grievances (subjectivation and subjection). 

While the USA is increasingly multiethnic and multiracial, many working-class and ethnic communities are close-knit and suspicious of outsiders. Given such ethnocentrism, distrust comes first, until ‘the other’ is accepted as ‘one of us’, at which point welcome is extended; and given the limited and often negative interactions that marginalised people have with outsiders, under conditions of exploitation and dehumanisation, some xenophobia emerges and, while understandable, is nonetheless destructive. 

For Tokarczyk, solidarity can only be imagined. Nevertheless, she argues, this imaginative creation is important at a time, in the early 21st century, when there are few organisational fora, in the USA or in Europe, which can serve as vehicles for establishing and articulating solidarity, given the weakening of trades unions and their prior capacity to undermine solidarity along national, industrial, racial, ethnic and gender lines: an inter-subjectivity, as working-class consciousness, already self-divided. 


For this imaginative creation highlighted by Tokarczyk to be of importance, and not simply be a consolation, one would have to consider further the status of the inter-subjectivity in question. In this context, one might benefit from bearing in mind Wendeline Hardenberg’s (2014) comment that literary ‘selves’, as fictional characters, or, rather, as actants, have more in common with readers’ ‘selves’, i.e. ‘real persons’ selves’, than many people are comfortable to countenance. 

Hardenberg takes as her ground for this assertion Jacques Lacan’s argument that the primordial form of ‘the I’ situates the agency of the ego in a fictional or Imaginary [1] direction, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being of the socialised or Symbolic [2] subject asymptotically, setting up a discord between one’s conceptions of oneself, as a fictional or Imaginary identification, which must then be defended against the onset of the Symbolic order of society, itself a continual re-working of the real. The subject performs an inter-subjective negotiation of the tensions among the imaginary self as ego, the subject roles articulated by the symbolic order of the society and the chaotic (networked, rhizomic) accidence of the real.

Given the fictional or imaginary status of the ego, as already an alter ego, while this is far from simple, it is nonetheless feasible to move among imaginary identifications, other alter egos, articulated in different media. In this way, while people have identities, they may also change as they become different others-to-others, none of which alterations (becoming alter or other) is basic while the others are departures.

While fiction can be interpreted from the position of the ego’s struggle with the symbolic order of society and the chaos of reality (whether as fullness or as void), it may also be interpreted from the perspective of the symbolic order: how to effect change, given the formation of embodied subjects, to consider the conditions for solidarity, for example.

It becomes crucial for understanding the articulation of the literary, the ethical and the political to grasp the ‘actantial’ status of the ‘personal’, as imaginary ego, as subject, as inter-subjective, as inter-corporeal, as inter-active; as networked; as environed.


[1] “The Imaginary is the domain of dual relationships, the domain of the either/or. In Lacan, the term derives from the mirror stage which occurs between the ages of six and eighteen months in child-development. … This results in a specular identification with the image of another, an alter ego, which involves the constitution of the ego as an ALIENATION of the subject. The Imaginary is thus constituted on the double bind inherent in the word IDENTITY: identical to what and to whom, for what and for whom?” (Wilden, 1980: 260) [Emphases in original]

[2] Wilden (1980: 264-265) summarises his discussion of Lacan’s concepts of Imaginary and Symbolic in the following way:

“The Symbolic is the domain of similarity and difference; the Imaginary that of opposition and identity. The Symbolic is the category of displaced reciprocity and similar relationships; the Imaginary that of mirror-relationships, specialisation in symmetry or pseudo-symmetry, duality, complementarity, and short circuits. Neither Symbolic nor Imaginary can do without the other, and neither can be defined except in terms of and in differentiation from the other.The Symbolic function is collective and the domain of the Law; the Imaginary creates the illusion of subjective autonomy.”

Given these distinctions, Wilden (1980: 265) continues,

“The Imaginary is the domain of adequacy; the Symbolic is the domain of truth. Desire is to the Symbolic as demand is to the Imaginary, as are the subject and the ego respectively. Imaginary debts can never be paid; Symbolic debts can never not be paid. The separation of the organism from the environment is Imaginary; the ecosystem is Symbolic. The cogito is an Imaginary ‘I’; loquor is the next step towards a potential Symbolic 'we’. The being of the Imaginary is either/or; the being of the Symbolic is both-and."


Hardenberg, W.A. (2014). The Breath of my life: constructing the self in Chen Ran’s A Private Life. Women’s Studies. 43 (7), 930–945. DOI:10.1080/00497878.2014.938187 [Accessed 30 December 2014].

Tokarczyk, M.M. (2014). Toward imagined solidarity in the working-class epic: Chris Llewellyn’s Fragments from the Fire and Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom. Women’s Studies. 43 (7), 865–891. DOI:10.1080/00497878.2014.938189 [Accessed 29 December 2014].

Wilden, A. (1980). System and structure: essays in communication and exchange. London, UK: Tavistock.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Braidotti, revisited

Rosi Braidotti argues that her “monistic philosophy of becomings” (2013: 35) rests on the idea that matter is intelligent and self-organising. [Does she mean that intelligence is an emergent property of particular forms of material arrangements or organisation; or does she intend that intelligence is a property of matter?] Human embodiment is part of that more general intelligent self-organisation. In this approach, subjectivity is a process of auto-poiesis or self-styling. It therefore involves continuous, and complex, negotiations with dominant norms and values and, by implication, multiple forms of accountability. 

In Braidotti’s account, post-humanism is an historical moment that marks the end of the period when Humanism and anti-humanism were seen as opposites. She calls her variant of posthuman thought ‘critical post humanism’. This strand of thinking explores the potential of post-structuralist thought, the anti-universalism of feminism and the anti-colonial phenomenology of Franz Fanon and Aime Cesaire. 

The value of post-colonial theory for Braidotti is that it recognises that, 

“ideals of reason, secular tolerance, equality under the Law and democratic rule, need not be, and indeed historically have not been, mutually exclusive with Wuropean practices of violent domination, exclusion and systematic and instrumental use of terror.” (2013:46)

While this is to recognise that reason and barbarism are not mutually exclusive, and nor are Enlightenment and horror, Braidotti insists that this is not to sink into cultural relativism or moral nihilism. 

Braidotti positions her particular version of post-humanism as within an ecological framework. Thus, she argues, her critical post-human subject operated within an eco-philosophy of multiple belongings. This subject is constituted as relational and as as multiple. This is a form of subjectivity that works across differences while also being internally differentiated. However, this form of subjectivity remains grounded and accountable. 

As Braidotti explains, 

“Posthuman subjectivity expresses an embodied and embedded and hence partial form of accountability, based on a strong sense of collectivity, relationally and hence community building.” (2013: 49)

The position she outlines is one that favours complexity and promotes radical post-human subjectivity, relaying upon an ethics of becoming. Braidotti reaffirms that while this position rejects individualism, it also distances itself from relativism and nihilistic defeatism. She proposes a “post human ethics for a non-unitary subject”. (2013: 49)

The post human subjectivity she advocates is materialist and vitalist, embodied and embedded, and is firmly located (spatio-temporally), in line with a feminist politics of location. 


Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Variations on the theme of a third generation university

As mentioned in The familiar, yet strange, topological inversions and reversions of the flyped university, Gary Hall develops a concept of the ‘third generation university'. He suggests that the ‘third generation university' is critical of "the processes whereby capitalist neo-liberal economics are increasingly turning higher education into an extension of business", a period which Hall refers to as the second generation university. 

The third generation university, Hall contends, is also critical of attempts to return to the kinds of paternalistic and class-bound ideas which previously dominated the university, a condition that Hall defines the first generation university. This first generation university, Hall argues, was oriented towards an elite cultural training and the reproduction of a national culture.

Hall's third generation university may be seen to have a British provenance and to concern only the recent past, notably the post-1945 period of British history. 

Hall’s concept of a 'third generation university' is not, however, the only such concept. J. G. Wissema, Managing Director, J.G. Wissema Associates bv and Professor Emeritus of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands, has proposed another kind of third-generation universities model. 

Such universities, according to Wissema are international know-how hubs. Wissema posits nine fundamental characteristics of third generation universities.  As summarised by Isaiah T. Awidi (2014), they are as follows:
  1. Fundamental research is the core activity of the university.
  2. Research is largely transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary.
  3. They are network universities.
  4. They operate in an internationally competitive market.
  5. They operate a two-track system, with special facilities for the best and brightest students and academics.
  6. They embrace the concepts of consilience and creativity. 
  7. They are cosmopolitan.
  8. They are a cradle of new entrepreneurial activity, in addition to performing the traditional tasks of research and education.
  9. They are financed by output financing rather than input financing.
As such, they are more akin to Hall's second generation universities than his third.


Awidi, I.T. (2014). Repositioning Budget-Constrained Universities as Third-Generation Universities.EDUCAUSE Review Online. 49 (6). Available at: Accessed on 2 December 2014.

Hall, G. (2009). Front page: The University 3G. Hyper-Cyprus [Website] Available at Accessed 26 November 2014.

Wissema, J.G. (2009) Towards the third generation university: managing the university in transition. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Educational labour

Given the changes that have occurred since 2010, can higher education in the UK be said to constitute 'a system'? Rather, do we not have a proliferation of systems or a series of systems and sub-systems, arising from the break-up of a prior system, again one whose coherence should not be overstated and one that certainly should not be viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, or indeed specularised at all.
At a Symposium organised by Matt Charles held on 7 November 2014, under the joint aegis of the Institute for Modern & Contemporary Culture (IMCC) and the Higher Education Research Centre (HERC) at the University of Westminster, a number of pressing issues pertaining to those questions were raised for those partaking in higher education, whether as givers or receivers, in the UK, and elsewhere.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Honig: Antigone and contemporary democratic theory

In a review of Bonnie Honig's "Antigone, Interrupted", Andres Fabian Henao Castro (2014) points out that the dominant reception of the play that Honig contests is a de-politicising one, that is to say, one which minimises the conflicts and neutralises the divisions in the play. This dominant interpretation of the play considers it to be an icon of human universality in mourning, lamentation and death, in which everyone is equally implicated. 

The goal of Honig's "Antigone, Interrupted", as Henao Castro explains, is to re-politicise the play. This means accentuating the conflict, the divisions and the fractions, to unsettle those places where the dominant interpretation had sought to ground universality. Against such universal humanism, Honig proposes agonism, i.e. rivalry and contestation. 

In her articles on the sororal conspiracy between Antigone and her sister Ismene, Henao Castro (2014: 606) notes that Honig argues that the relevance of "Antigone" for contemporary democratic theory rests, paradoxically, in the character's anti-democratic commitments to an aristocratic form of lamentation, which democracy was seeking to replace in the politics of burial in 5th century Athens


Henao Castro, Andres Fabian (2014). Antigone and democratic theory. The Classical Review, New Series, 64 (2), pp.606-608. 

Honig, Bonnie (2013). Antigone, interrupted. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Knowledge, Stability, Print Technology

The book, or at least the text/book considered in an academic context, is a source of intelligence, Ranciere argues, an intelligence equally accessible to the student as the teacher (‘master’), an intelligence that is not solely accessible to explicators, those with hidden, secret or ulterior knowledge.

The book, we think, stabilises knowledge. The book ‘contains’ knowledge (double sense intended), ‘encases’ knowledge or ‘binds’ knowledge. However, as Johns (1998: 5) makes clear, "... early modern printing was not joined by any obvious or necessary bond to enhanced fidelity, reliability, and truth. That bond had to be forged."

Johns continues:
"We ourselves routinely rely on stable communications in our making and maintenance of knowledge, whether of the people around us or of the world in which we live. That stability helps to underpin the confidence we feel in our impressions and beliefs." (Johns, 1998: 5)
In the 16th century, printers took to praising their craft for its powers to preserve. They contrasted their craft with that of scribal reproduction, which they characterised as intrinsically corruptive, i.e. productive of textual corruption and, thereby, corrupted readers.

It is not printing in itself that possesses preservative powers, but printing put to use in particular ways. While it is important to observe the differences between print and manuscript reproduction, it is equally important, Johns insists, to consider how the press itself and its products have been, and continue to be, employed.

The roots of textual stability are to be found in the practices of employment of printed products as much as in the press itself.

Knowledge, such as we conceive it, has come to depend on that stability. A reappraisal of print in the making can contribute to our understanding of the conditions of knowledge itself, Johns contends.

The de-stabilising of the book, as knowledge format and as knowledge technology, and the de-stabilising of ‘print culture’, then, has great consequence for knowledge as well as for its transmissibility. A major presumed base of knowledge becomes questionable.

This de-stabilising of the book, in turn, has great consequence for ‘the library’, in its role as a stabilising institution which maintains the integrity of the text/book-basis of knowledge.


Johns, A. (1998). The Nature of the book: print and knowledge in the making. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.