About Nowt

Martin Demant Frederiksen – An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular (Zero Books, 2018)

For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain.

What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba.

Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise.

It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about.

But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word.

Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency.

Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter.

The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach.

So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it.

As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost.

I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not.

In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something.

You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever…

– Joe Darlington

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Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like Miles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

The Tangled Web of Immigration Controversy

Jones, Gunaratnam, Battacharyya, Davies, Dhaliwal, Forkert, Jackson and Saltus et al – Go Home? The Politics of Immigration Controversies (Manchester University Press)

The social sciences should be reactive and responsive to their surroundings rather than simply writing for and within their particular disciplinary cocoons. There is a need for what Les Back terms ‘live sociology’ and it requires being historically situated and attentive to the changing and often chaotic nature of the social world. Live sociology is a call to be inventive, reflective, and partisan.

As Les Back and Nirmal Puwar argue, new strategies and ‘live methods’ need to be developed and, ultimately, this not only means arguing for an alternative future, but crafting one into existence. Go Home?: The Politics of Immigration Controversies, published by Manchester University Press, is an exercise in this sort of academic practice.

The book, which is authored by eight academics and activists, was the result of research formed in direct response to the UK Home Office’s ‘Operation Vaken’ in 2013. Vaken was a pilot operation intending to increase the number of ‘voluntary departures’ from the UK and combined hard-edged immigration enforcement with a media strategy that included journalists accompanying officers on immigration raids and the Home Office tweeting images of the arrests under the hashtag #immigrationoffenders.

Perhaps the most notorious aspect of the operation were the so-called ‘Go Home vans’ which were driven around six London boroughs carrying billboards that read, ‘In the UK Illegally? Go Home or Face Arrest’. The text was accompanied by an image of handcuffs. As the authors write: ‘The moment of the Go Home van seemed to us to be a turning point in the climate of immigration debates – a ratcheting up of anti-migrant feeling to the point where it was possible for a government-sponsored advertisement to use the same hate speech rhetoric as far-right racists.’

This heightened level of state-funded vitriol was disturbing and in the context of increasing border enforcement across education, healthcare and housing, the deployment of the vans also raised the issue of how changing immigration laws and practices become entwined with public feeling and discourse. A central question the book takes up in response to Operation Vaken is ‘how do we map the variety of perspectives and stories surrounding immigration enforcement?’

The impetus behind this question – and the book – emerged as academics and activists connected over social media platforms to discuss, debate and respond to the Go Home vans. Immediate and unfunded street surveys were carried out to capture, as quickly as possible, reactions to Operation Vaken. Focus groups were held in cities across the UK, from Bradford to Glasgow to London, and included recent migrants, long-settled migrants, and ethnic minority and white British citizens. And an Ipsos MORI poll on perceptions of immigration enforcement was also commissioned. The research that underpins this book was undertaken across physical and virtual sites, from the London street to Twitter and this raw and multi-method approach is apparent throughout.

Each chapter begins with an example of ‘living research’, whether conversations between activist groups and researchers, debates with a professional research organisation over the exact wording of survey questions, or difficult and ethically-charged moments that researchers encountered during their fieldwork. All of these examples of ‘living research’ challenge notions of a stable and fixed research field and continually raise questions about method and practice and ethics.

My own PhD research, alongside destitute and refused male asylum seekers living in Manchester, coincided with Operation Vaken. One afternoon, in the early summer of 2013, I was sitting in the front room of a house in south Manchester with a young lad who had recently had his asylum claim rejected and was now being housed by a local charity. The television was on and a piece on the Go Home vans flashed up as the headline item on the BBC news.

The message of the vans was ostensibly aimed at him – a refused asylum seeker who was now expected to leave the country. ‘What do you think of this?’, I asked. ‘It’s just a show’, replied, seeing it as a sort of publicity stunt. His comment reflected some of the cynicism that this book’s authors were encountering across the social and political spectrum while conducting their research.

Yasmin Gunaratnam’s focus groups in Barking and Dagenham included anti-immigration UKIP supporters and a former electoral candidate for the far-right British National Party. The former BNP candidate, and others, regarded the vans as a public-relations game saying that the government was just ‘trying to give the impression that they’re doing something about it [immigration]’.

Some of this ‘popular scepticism’, as the writers term it, reflects a wider antipathy towards ‘elites’, ‘technocrats’, orthodox economics and government initiatives. Immigration becomes an empty signifier for all sorts of socio-economic issues and this is read through a broader shift away from liberal forms of governance in which statistics and macroeconomics tended to be the ultimate arbiters of ‘good policy’ towards a ‘postliberalism’ that appeals to displays of ‘toughness’ in regards to immigration, as well as notions of security, belonging and national identity.

Yet, despite all of this scepticism, there seems to be an ongoing, dialectical relationship at work: the far-right expresses distrust over government initiatives against migrants at the same time that the state moves away from evidence-based policy formation and begins to adopt the very language and rhetoric of the far-right.

The question of who the Go Home vans were actually aimed at seems unclear: migrants or the far-right? Were they an exercise in stoking fear or political appeasement? It’s likely both and this lack of clarity was part of the effectiveness of the Go Home vans, because despite all the scepticism this sort of performative politics, with its associated hardened policies, creates raw and real effects.

Phrases like ‘Go Home’ are not just located on government-sponsored billboards but are part and parcel of a historic and ongoing racist discourse. With the ‘Go Home vans’ there was no clear separation between official discourse and everyday racism. A visceral fear emerged from some minoritised focus group participants, regardless of citizenship or residency status, when discussing encounters with public displays of border enforcement.

Emotion and fear, cynicism and distrust, racism and rhetoric, and the physical violence of border enforcement all form a tangled web – a vicious complexity that can easily bear down on people in malign ways. There is another crucial and difficult issue addressed in the book: the distinction between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ migrant.

It drills down through discourse and policy, distinguishing the citizen from the immigrant, the ‘wanted’ migrant from the ‘unwanted’ migrant, the ‘good’ migrant from the ‘bad’ migrant, and the ‘illegal’ from the ‘legal’. It’s a toxic form of moralising that apportions blame on those considered ‘other’, separating those considered to ‘belong’ and those who do not, those who are deserving of rights from those who are not. It’s a discourse that lies behind policy formation and it sits there in the open as seen in the Immigration Minister Mark Harper’s letter to the Daily Mail justifying the Go Home vans (which is quoted in block form in the book).

But, it’s also a mobile discourse, utilised by different groups in different ways. It is not just a discourse operating from a privileged centre to the margins, but also part of the fight for moral worth by those who experience marginalisation. In focus groups researchers found that some participants, who were migrants to the UK, adopted the deserving and undeserving distinction in relation to other migrants while an activist from Southall Black Sisters who was engaged in anti-border enforcement protests reflected on negative responses to her work from her own community.

The deserving and undeserving distinction raised itself in my own research too. The destitute men I was spending time with in Manchester sometimes spoke out against benefits claimants who were seen as lazy and spending their money on drugs and alcohol, while also occasionally complaining about other refugees, who were seen as liars who falsified their claims and took the place of those who had been wrongfully rejected. The deserving and underserving distinction is seemingly all pervasive. And it’s not simply an object of study for me as it flashes up in my own family history of migration.

For the authors of Go Home? the deserving and undeserving distinction is the product of long-standing anti-immigrant rhetoric and a neoliberal economic and social frame that holds individuals responsible for poverty and inequality rather than institutions and structures.

‘Neoliberalism’ is a big slab of a term that can be all-too-easily deployed by academics as something they can position themselves against in text, but here it emphasises the context in which the deserving and undeserving distinction becomes an all-pervading discourse, deployed in multiple ways against multiple people. The authors do not leave it here. They also look for moments that disrupt and breakdown this discourse. These are not only high profile moments of resistance, such as the 2013 ‘Chinatown Shutdown’ in which businesses, staff, anti-racists and cultural organisations closed shops and took to the streets of London’s Chinatown following a series of heavy-handed immigration raids fishing for migrants working illicitly, but also more mundane moments where ‘seemingly banal comments about warmth, hospitality, and love could be profound in a context where migrants were struggling against the daily strictures of immigration controls that are material, social and emotional’.

The dehumanising actions and rhetoric of immigration enforcement need to be countered with humanising actions and rhetoric. There is work to be done. And it is being done. It’s being done in the emergent City of Sanctuary movement which has its origins in Sheffield – bringing local communities and those seeking asylum together. It’s being done by multiple activist and community groups across the country. The strength of Go Home? Is that it takes the singular moment of the Go Home vans to expose all sorts of issues, from sweeping and historic political shifts to everyday experiences of immigration enforcement and all the vicious material and emotional and discursive knots that connect the two. This is ‘live sociology’, responsive and partisan and necessary.

– Mark Rainey