Yarl’s Wood women: “We are not street dogs”

Stop Deportations

Yarl’s Wood women: “We are not street dogs”

PRESS RELEASE from Corporate Watch

Over 30 women are on hunger strike at the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, with half of them facing deportation to Pakistan tomorrow on a specially chartered flight. Corporate Watch takes a look at the deals between London and Islamabad on security, trade and aid, arguing that asylum-seekers are being treated as bargaining chips in these negotiations.

The women on hunger strike, many of whom are seeking asylum from gender-based persecution, are detained at Yarl’s Wood – itself the scene of an ongoing investigation into sexual abuse by Serco guards. A statement issued by some of the hunger strikers challenges the legality of “mass deportations”, noting that the women “have not had access to legal aid”, and that there is a “huge waiting list” for lawyers, “due to [a] mass round up” of…

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Factories of Human Waste Production: A Response to Calls for a Public Inquiry at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre

“Yarl’s Wood: An object lesson in how evil happens”
Since it was opened on 19 November 2001, migrants and their activist allies have been campaigning against Yarl’s Wood, a detention centre which holds 900 people and is currently run under contact by the global securities company SERCO. Yarl’s Wood is a human waste production facility. In just over a decade we have witnessed riots, fires, naked protests and hunger strikes by immigration detainees. There have been many allegations of racism, abuse and violence by detainees and ‘undercover journalists. There has been report after report published and circulated by NGO’s, activists, and medical bodies, condemning the conditions in detention, the length of time people are held and the absence of adequate medical and legal support systems. Now serious allegations of sexual exploitation of detainees by guards has emerged.

It is time for a public inquiry.

It is time to shut this factory down.

But we will only do this by changing how the public think about –and how they perceive– immigration detention.

In what follows I examine one attempt to make the inhuman absurdity of the British Immigration detention system newly visible.

Shit Hole A poem by Wan Yun Ji

This place is shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

Food here taste like smell of shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

Only one way out, toilet.

Thank you for teaching me English now I can say to warden please don’t kick my shit hole, shit hole, shit hole.

Wasted Lives

The short black comic film “Asylum” (2011, Directed by Joern Utkilen) depicts the lives of two migrants Alfred Islami (Mihai Arsene) and Wan Yun Ji (Andy Cheung) living through the interminable time of an immigration detention centre in Scotland. Immigration detention, “Asylum” reveals, is characterised by an excess of time. In the absurdist tradition of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ (1953) the detainees ‘can only kill time, as they are slowly killed by it’ (Bauman 1998: p. 88).

Alfred Islami dreams of running a biodynamic farm, he spends time reading about bio-dynamic farming methods, acting out his farming fantasies with the few props, chairs, pot-plants, rubber gloves, at his disposal and attempting to procure potatoes and cows from detention officials. Alfred shares a shabby room in the detention centre with Wan Yun Ji (Andy Cheung). While Alfred spends his time playing farmer in order to ‘kill time’, Wan Yun Ji engages in repeated acts of self-harm, including cutting his wrists in a failed suicide attempt and throwing himself through the glass window of his detention centre room. These different strategies of survival represent attempts not only to pass time but to sustain some semblance of agency and self-determination. These are activities which stave off (the seemingly inevitable) psychological deterioration into zombie-like “dead but undead” states of being, which overwhelm detainees around them.

zombie

Zombification in detention. Still from ‘Asylum’ (2011, Directed by Joern Utkilen).

Zygmunt Bauman argues that one of the major characteristics of global capitalism is the manufacture of ever greater numbers of ‘wasted humans’ within and at the borders of sovereign territories (Bauman, 2004, p. 5). The rise of neoliberal social and economic policies since the 1970s has accelerated “human waste production”. In particular, the staggering economic inequalities effected by neoliberal globalization have led to an increase in migrations and border-crossings around the world, particularly from the former communist bloc and from the Global South toward the more affluent countries of the Global North. Growing numbers of wasted lives are no longer be contained within the ‘dumping grounds’ and shanty towns of the South, but are visible as shadow populations at and within the borders of wealthy nations — slum-dwellers, illegal workers, rough-sleepers, immigration detainees.

Bauman suggests that the world is now characterised by two classes of people: tourist-consumers, those with agency who are free to consume and move, and vagabonds, disposable populations who get stuck and whose lives are often wasted. What distinguishes these two classes is mobility, the relative freedom to move across borders. As Abby Peterson summarises, for the tourists ‘distances are easily bridged […] and borders are easily crossed’ (Peterson, 2010, p. 16). By way of contrast, when vagabonds attempt to cross borders:

they travel surreptitiously, often illegally, sometimes paying more for the crowded steerage of a stinking unseaworthy boat than others pay for business-class gilded luxuries and are frowned upon, and if unlucky, arrested and promptly deported, when they arrive (Bauman in Peterson, 2010, p. 16).

In the case of unwanted migrants, immigration detention centres are factories of human waste production which strip people of their human dignity and reproduce them as dehumanized, deportable beings. Joern Utkilen’s Asylum is a meditation on the human waste disposal industry. From the name of the detention centre, ‘Dungwood’ , a reference to Dungavel Immigration Removal Centre in Scotland, to Islami’s explanations of the shit-based science of biodynamic farming, to Wan Yun Ji’s poem ‘Shit Hole’ , this film is about the production of wasted lives. It is a story told from the perspective of migrants interpellated as illegal, deportable, waste. Through a black comic lens, it examines what it might mean to find oneself constituted as disposable, and what the conditions for surviving such an abject classification might be.

dungwood

Dungwood Removal Centre. Still from ‘Asylum’ (2011, Directed by Joern Utkilen).

The protagonists of Asylum resist and survive the human waste removal centre. While Islami fails to persuade the detention centre manager to allow him to transform Dungwood into a biodynamic farm, by the end of the film he has succeeded in obtaining a ‘live potato’. Wan Yun Ji, is in a wheelchair after throwing himself through the window, but has found love (and a possible route out of imprisonment) with a Scottish Nurse who cared for him in hospital. In the final scene of the film we see Islami planting his potato in the grounds of the detention centre with Wan Yun Ji beside him. Embracing the philosophy of biodynamic farming, they have both find ways to resist their designation as human waste. The moral of Asylum seems to be that there is always some value, some life, some comedy and some hope, to be extracted from the shit holes in which we find ourselves.

While we are witnessing the intensification of the production of wasted lives, we are also living in a period of intensive resistance to wider processes of disenfranchisement. This is a time when people around the world are questioning deepening inequalities, the impoverishment of democracy, the marketization of welfare, the proliferation of surveillance cultures and the militarisation of borders. In this context it is important to map, explore and document some of the diversity and vitality of protests against border regimes in a range of local and national contexts. The difficulty of resistance and the creative means through which migrants, artists and activists engage in protest.

We also need to reflect on questions of in/visibility and in particular the centrality of representations and perceptual frames in creating value and prescribing differential values to human lives. Equality and justice requires transformations in the relations ‘between words and things, between words and the visible’ and a reorganization of ‘the sensory configuration of what is given to us and how we can make sense of it’ (Rancière 2008, 174).

Documenting resistance and protest involves the creation of new aesthetics of migration, which in turn can be used to question the inclusive/exclusive logic of citizenship and the language and economics of illegality. So whilst everyday resistances might go unnoticed, and even spectacular events such street protests might register as little more than minor disturbances within the public sphere, the restaging and repetition of these acts form part of a critical practice of counter-mapping which creates a fabric of resistance.

(a longer version of this blog post will appear as an afterword by Imogen Tyler & Katarzyna Marciniak to ‘Immigrant Protest: Politics, Aesthetics and Everyday Dissent’ SUNY Press 2014)

Great review of Imogen Tyler’s ‘Revolting Subjects’ in Antipode

© Antipode – Original Review by Tom Slater @tomslater42

Imogen Tyler Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, London: Zed Books, 2013. ISBN: 9781848138513 (paper); ISBN: 9781848138520 (cloth); ISBN: 9781848138544 (ebook)

I began the task of reviewing this remarkable book with a tangled sense of admiration for, on the one hand, the amazing political urgency and eloquence of sociologist Imogen Tyler’s writing, and on the other, the epic nature of the research endeavour that led to the publication of Revolting Subjects.  Well over a decade of intense theoretical scrutiny, empirical grafting and pedagogical commitment provides the backbone for a book that takes the reader on a white-knuckle ride through  the  disturbing landscape of  neoliberal Britain, exposing  and analysing the dismal politics of disgust and the myriad representational forms that have made it possible for an unbearably self-satisfied ruling class to convince a jaded electorate that the country is ‘broken’ not because of three decades of state-sanctioned free-market fanaticism, but rather because of the existence and behaviour of various categories of poor citizens.  This book  is  a  tough  read  for  tough  times,  but  a  very  rare  example  of  a  publication  that accomplishes both an intellectual achievement of the highest order and a hopeful political offering of  great significance to  ongoing (class) struggles over representation, land and citizenship.  Early on, Tyler draws inspiration from the words of Wendy Brown (2005) in insisting upon a form of political engagement that is helpful in “keeping the times from closing in on us”, and hopes that her book makes “a small contribution to the development of a new political imaginary for these revolting times” (p.18).  Revolting Subjects makes much, much more than a small contribution.

‘Disgust’, as Tyler recognises, is a strong word signifying an “urgent, guttural and aversive emotion” (p.21).   A scene-setting introduction, offering a taster of the numerous theoretical influences informing a book structured logically and carefully, leads us into a compelling opening chapter that thoroughly dissects ‘disgust’ in order to elaborate Tyler’s conceptual paradigm for the book: social abjection.  She is quite clear that her account is a revision of an existing conceptual paradigm of abjection that, for all its analytic merits, does not do the political work it could and should do.   Therein lies the normative pulse of the book, which stems from its wonderfully mischievous intent to explore how the technologies of neoliberalism might be reversed – how the revulsion of the state towards those at the bottom of the class structure could be directed back towards the state in respect of being revolted by its grotesque daily practices of condemnation and disenfranchisement.   This requires viewing social abjection as both mode of governmentality and psychosocial theory of subjects and states, and to do so the author moves via the foundational work of Georges Bataille and Mary Douglas to a respectful yet robust critique of Julia Kristeva’s body of (psychoanalytic) work on abjection, drawing on feminist and postcolonial theory by way of, among others, Frantz Fanon, Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak.  These are, of course, major thinkers with influential ideas, and to weave them together without losing clarity of political purpose is no easy task.  This is achieved, however, by way of a highly informative chapter conclusion which takes a cue from the excellent work of Alison Mountz to consider the state not as a lumbering, bureaucratic apparatus but as a political process in motion, interpretable in its day-to-day interactions with and treatment of its marginalised citizens especially.

Chapter 2, ‘The Abject Politics of British Citizenship’, is a searing critique of the ways in which certain despised migrant categories from former British colonies can be made “stateless within the state”, and how this is no policy accident but a deliberate strategy of statecraft; citizenship in neoliberal Britain, it is argued, is increasingly circumscribed by and dependent upon the production of abject figures.  Such a strong argument requires careful historicisation of the relations between states, citizens and territories, which is undertaken through an analysis of the 1981 Nationality Act, a piece of legislation from the Thatcher years that was less about its stated intent of ‘defining citizenship’ and more an attempt at racial domination via  the  establishment of  essentialist and  exclusionary categories of  national origin.  The lasting impact of this Act is captured by the author in the distressing case of an interviewee, Sonia, who in 2006 became a ‘failed citizen’ when her application for asylum was rejected and, when heavily pregnant and escaping sexual violence and an arranged marriage, was arrested and detained when trying to leave the UK with a false passport. Tyler interviewed Sonia in 2009 and relays not only the crushing material deprivation she was enduring, but also the consequences of being both cast out and outcast within the overall paradox of migrant social abjection:

“Sonia has been constituted as ‘illegal’, somebody with no right to reside or remain in Britain.  She cannot escape Britain, she tried and failed, but she is also deprived of access to the resources which human beings require to make a liveable life within the state.   Sonia is excluded from British citizenship, its rights and protections, but, paradoxically, remains under the direct and suffocating control of the state; her everyday life is saturated with state power” (p.68).

In the UK, the almost unimaginable situations of people in Sonia’s position have been aggravated over the last two decades by a steadily accelerating political and right-wing media chorus of condemnation of so-called ‘asylum seekers’ (especially ‘bogus’ ones), a catch-all moniker for refugees that has become inscribed into law, and which led to a series of punitive measures relying on the activation of the pervasive myth that Britain has been too generous in opening up its borders to an impending apocalyptic ‘invasion’ of foreign nationals.  I was captivated by the sections of Chapter 3 entitled ‘The fabrication of the asylum seeker’ and ‘Media theatrics’, in which Tyler traces the symbolic denigration and criminalisation of those fleeing economic redundancy and/or and political violence, and then situates this within a political-economic register by focusing on how such condemnation carved a path for the growth  of  an  immensely  profitable  industry  of  asylum  determination,  detention  and deportation.   Just as captivating was the way in which the author gave equal attention to migrant and refugee activism in the context of such an oppressive political structure, finding openings in not just individual acts of resistance but in the collective reactions to them, which destabilise fixed notions of inclusion and exclusion and expose the vested interests behind migration policy.

The pivotal theme of protest is the focus of Chapter 4, ‘Naked Protest’, where three apparently separate events are interweaved elaborately in response to Silvia Federici’s call for a ‘feminist commons’.  A varied panoply of research methods and sources allowed Tyler to analyse the cases of naked protests by a group of mothers at Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre in England in 2008; by indigenous mothers against global oil corporations in the Niger Delta in 2005; and by feminist activists of the CodePink Houston movement’s

‘Expose the Naked Truth’ protest against the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. What unites these events is not only the neoliberal abjectification of the women participating in them, but the radical praxis of opposition: maternal politics emerged from the capitalist destruction of life, from the assertion of our common roots via maternal origin (“We are all born”, as Tyler captures it so simply and effectively on p.122), and from the possibilities of a life-centred imaginary that shatters illusions of human progress under patriarchal systems of capitalist exploitation.

The next three chapters of Revolting Subjects are all focused on social abjection in the UK, and offer riveting, absolutely arresting accounts of, respectively, the subjugation of Gypsies and Travellers; the invention of the ‘chav’ as the latest semantic battering ram in the denigration of the British working class; and the ways in which the ‘underclass’ category was invoked to ‘explain’ the August 2011 riots in urban England. Tyler’s account of the infamous Dale Farm eviction of 2011, when the approximately 500 residents of the largest Gypsy and Traveller site in Europe were subject to a scarcely believable forced eviction, is an analysis sensitive  to  the  intersections  between  land  rights,  stigmatizing  campaigns  and  political technologies (as evidenced in David Cameron’s philanthropic fantasy of a ‘Big Society’ – a project which, by triumphantly handing power to local groups and communities, actually enabled this forced eviction to occur). Unsatisfied with an approach that would simply report on a miserable and violent episode in British planning history, the author closes this chapter in thoughtful dialogue with political movements that emerged in solidarity with the residents of Dale Farm, and considers their actions in light of important interventions against ‘Left melancholia’ by Paul Gilroy and Jacques Ranciere (the latter’s argument that politics is about creating ‘dissensus’ within the hegemonic perceptual and aesthetic field being particularly instructive and pertinent to Tyler’s intellectual project).   The chapter that follows in part refines and extends earlier arguments Tyler made in a blistering paper published in Feminist Media Studies in 2008, entitled ‘Chav Mum, Chav Scum’, and offers the most convincing critique  I  have  yet  seen  of  the  ludicrous  thesis  –  popular  among  mainstream  British sociologists – that ‘class is dead’.  Alert to the ways in which areas of council housing have become stigmatized as urban hellholes where the ‘problem’ categories of society collect and fester – and how that stigma becomes activated for political capital – Tyler’s astonishing interrogation of the production and utilisation of the ‘chav’ label, and the damage that it does, sets the scene for what I take to be the signal political argument of Revolting Subjects – that “class struggle is struggle against classification” (p.173). This requires some elaboration.

In the UK, Owen Jones’ (2011) book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class became a bestseller and catapulted Jones to the position of the go-to ‘view from the Left’ among newspaper editors and current affairs television producers.   Tyler applauds Jones’ attempt to expose practices of stigmatization and to shift the terms of the debate, but is troubled by his methodology that “relies upon exposing a mismatch between the ‘unreality’ of  vilifying class  names  and  ‘reality’ of  working-class dignity” (p.170).  For  Tyler, this approach is open to political abuse and leaves unquestioned the ways in the ‘chav’ has become:  

“a figure through which ideological beliefs (the underclass), economic interests (the erosion of the welfare state) and a series of governmental technologies (media, politics, policy, law) converge to mystify neoliberal governmentality by naturalizing poverty in ways that legitimize the social abjection of the most socially and economically disadvantaged citizens within the state” (p.170-171).

This critique in place, Tyler proceeds to draw on both Ranciere (especially The Philosopher and His Poor [2004]) and Bev Skeggs (Formations of Class and Gender [1997]) to consider practices of “class naming”, and then she brings in Raymond Williams’ arguments (from Culture and Society [1983]) on the fabrication of ‘the masses’ to consider class as a history of names,  where  the  task  for  the  analyst  is  to  consider  how  class  names  have  colonised contemporary  thinking  on  poverty  and  inequality.     Such  analytical  work,  as  Tyler demonstrates in this book, is valuable to any mobilization against classification, for a new and invigorated vocabulary of class struggle.   This wholly absorbing argument in place, Chapter 7, ‘The Kids are Revolting’, exposes the insidious work of the ‘underclass’ trope in respect of how the August 2011 riots in England were reported, and argues that blasting apart this particularly loathsome classification in  a nascent politics of  dissensus is  absolutely crucial to a broader effort to contest divisive neoliberal ideology.

The book concludes with a short ‘Afterword’ where the recent protests of disability activists in the UK (in light of the privatization of welfare that began to gather steam at precisely the same time as the London 2012 Paralympic Games) are contextualised by way of an appropriately optimistic, and indeed rousing, finale.   Tyler argues that stigmatization “operates as a form of governance which legitimizes the reproduction and entrenchment of inequalities and injustices which impact on us all” (p.212), and the task is to engage with, understand and support the emergence of “declassificatory politics”, where those who are considered and in some way labelled as revolting “attempt to reconstitute themselves not only as citizens with rights, but as subjects of value” (p.214).   A delightful and uplifting final passage reveals that Revolting Subjects was written, in part, “as a backlash against some of the current forms of ‘post-ideological’ scholarship” (p.215).  This is, quite simply, a book on class struggle published in an intellectual context, no, in a country very squeamish about it. “Concepts”, Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked, “may alleviate mischief or they may make it worse; foster it or check it” (1977: 55).  In respect of class struggle, the concept of social abjection can foster all sorts of encouraging mischief; as Tyler argues, “it has the capacity to trouble the symbolic and material forms of violence it describes” (p.47).

I have no wish to offer any substantive critique of this extraordinary work – to do so would be dishonest and politically counterproductive.  I do wish the author hadn’t referred regularly to her case studies of social abjection as “political parables” – for me such language served to  trivialise a  series  of  tour-de-force analytical indictments of  neoliberal Britain written by a deeply committed scholar of social class.   I was at times frustrated that the piercing  insights of  Pierre  Bourdieu in  respect of  his  concepts of  symbolic power  and symbolic violence were not brought to bear on what is at heart a study of “the power to constitute  the  given  by  enunciating  it,  to  make  people  see  and  believe,  to  confirm  or transform the vision of the world, and thereby action upon the world, and thus the world itself”  (Bourdieu  1991:  170).     Through  their  activities  of  official  classification  and categorization, states (via public policies) contribute to producing particular ‘realities’, and this has significant implications for the people living at the bottom of the class structure.  To take the words of Javier Auyero, “[s]tates ‘state’ with words, signs and resources and they do so through concrete social relations and the establishment of rituals, routines and institutions that ‘work in us’” (2012: 5).  Such Bourdieusian scholarship has delivered significant insights into the state as a powerful site of symbolic and cultural production – so has Imogen Tyler, and  occasionally  I  felt  that  there  was  an  opportunity to  sharpen  her  already  powerful arguments in dialogue with (usually ethnographic) work that reminds us that neoliberalism at the  bottom  is  not  about  a  ‘retreating’  or  ‘laissez-faire’  state,  but  a  fiercely  bossy, interventionist and punitive one.  Also, in Chapter 6, I saw scope to engage more fully with recent scholarship on territorial stigmatization – how people are discredited and devalued because of the places with which they are associated, especially as the manner in which particular  places  are  portrayed  by  journalists,  politicians  and  think-tanks  has  become critically important to a debate about their future. The denigration of place is becoming more and more crucial to state strategies of abjection, as much recent work has elaborated – perhaps this is a future research project.  These comments, however, are just minor quibbles and must not take any shine off Revolting Subjects, and how important this book is for interpreting the nature of our historical moment.

Finally, as this is a geography journal, some brief closing thoughts in respect of the epistemological, methodological and especially political lessons this book offers for human geographers.   For well over a decade now, many geographers in the UK especially have become enamoured with ‘nonrepresentational theory’, an ungainly grab-bag of theoretical perspectives that crystallize around the (usually opaquely expressed) notion that the study of human and non-human practices and performances over the study of representational forms can get us somewhere politically, even as it totally disregards the political thrust of some of its supposed influences (e.g. Benjamin, Goffman, Deleuze, Bourdieu), and even as its leading proponents become servants to its central concepts (affect, event,  etc.) that are ascribed agency of their own.  It seems to me that nonrepresentational theory has colonised the minds of cultural geographers at precisely the time when close scrutiny of representational forms (in precisely the manner demonstrated by Imogen Tyler) is badly needed.  To be sure, some proponents   of   non-representational  theory   have   argued   that   our   ‘encounters’  with presentations’ require  study,  but  their  collective dismissal of  the  signifying  power  and symbolic ordering of representational forms seems light years from being relevant to the (class) struggles that define the politics of our age.   Thus I can only hope that Revolting Subjects will be widely read beyond its disciplinary grounding in sociology/cultural studies, and  indeed  beyond  academia:  it  offers  both  analytic  fortitude  and  refreshing  political inspiration. It is a nothing short of a beautiful heresy in these revolting times.

References

Auyero J (2012) Patients of the State: The Politics of Waiting in Argentina. Durham: Duke

University Press

Bourdieu P (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity

Brown W (2005) Edgework. Princeton: Princeton University Press

Jones O (2011) Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso

Ranciere J (2004 [1983]) The Philosopher and His Poor. Durham: Duke University Press

Skeggs B (1997) Formations of Class and Gender. London: Sage

Tyler I (2008) “Chav Mum, Chav Scum”: Class disgust in contemporary Britain.

Feminist Media Studies 8(1):17-34

Williams R (1983) Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (new edn). New York: Columbia

University Press

Wittgenstein L (1977 [1930]) Culture and Value. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

 

Tom Slater Institute of Geography School of GeoSciences University of Edinburgh

tom.slater@ed.ac.uk 

September 2013

 

New reviews – from property and prisons, through NRT and class struggle, to Harvey and some revolting subjects…

a review of Revolting Subjects from Antipode

AntipodeFoundation.org

New book reviews for September:

David Correia (University of New Mexico) on Fiona Mackenzie’s Places of Possibility: Property, Nature, and Community Land Ownership;

Jill Williams (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa) on Beyond Walls and Cages: Prisons, Borders, and Global Crisis and Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention;

Katrinka Somdahl-Sands (Rowan University) on Ben Anderson and Paul Harrison’s Taking-Place: Non-Representational Theories and Geography;

Filip Stabrowski (Hunter College, CUNY) on Joseph Varga’s Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space: Class Struggle and Progressive Reform in New York City, 1894-1914;

Christoph Scheuplein (University of Münster) on Felix Wiegand’s David Harveys urbane Politische Ökonomie: Ausgrabungen der Zukunft marxistischer Stadtforschung; and

Tom Slater (University of Edinburgh) on Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain.

*         *         *

All Antipode book reviews are now freely available from our online repository, Wiley…

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The Stuart Hall project – film out this week

Progressive Geographies

Highly acclaimed at this year’s Sundance and Sheffield Documentary festivals, the new film from award-winning documentarian John Akomfrah (The Nine Muses) is a sensitive, emotionally charged portrait of cultural theorist Stuart Hall.

A founding figure of contemporary cultural studies – and one of the most inspiring voices of the post-war Left – Stuart Hall’s resounding and ongoing influence on British intellectual life commenced soon after he emigrated from Jamaica in 1951. Combining extensive archival imagery – television excerpts, home movies, family photos – with specially filmed material and a personally mixed Miles Davis soundtrack, Akomfrah’s filmmaking approach matches the agility of Hall’s intellect, its intimate play with memory, identity and scholarly impulse traversing the changing historical landscape of the second half of the 20th century.

More details including screening locations at the BFI site. Thanks to Matt Davies and Rory Rowan for the link.

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Diversity Capitalism part 1 (longer blog post to follow)

 

Diversity Capitalism

Last year Sally Hines (Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at Leeds University) and Yvette Taylor (Head of the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, at London South Bank) emailed to ask me if I would contribute to an ESRC-funded seminar series on ‘Critical diversities’. My immediate response was to reply that ‘I don’t “do” diversity’. On reflection this probably seemed to them like quite a strange response from somebody who works on social inequalities and marginalisation and whose email signature identifies them as co-director of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University. Non-plussed by my strange response, Sally replied that this was a seminar series on critical diversities and they were interested in why I thought I didn’t ‘do’ diversity in my work.

Let me be clear, my work is precisely about diversity in several senses. It is ‘diverse’ in its scope, for example. My current book, Revolting  Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain is, I hope,  notably “intersectional” in its examination of a range of populations subject to what I term ‘social abjection’ (practices, policies and processes of stigma and exclusion).  My research is concerned with finding ways of thinking critically about difference, such as differences of ethnicity, social class, gender, citizenship status. It is politically motivated research, concerned with exposing and challenging inequalities of myriad kinds as they are variously lived and resisted ‘on the ground’. I am particularly interested in processes and practices of classification and what I term, following the work of Raymond Williams and Jacques Rancière, ‘declassificatory politics’.  Why not ‘diversity’ then? This was the question that I reflected upon when I received Sally and Yvette’s invitation. In particular, this invitation opened up for me a series of questions about the rhetoric of diversity, about what work diversity does as a governmental, institutional or corporate performative (see Ahmed and Swan 2006 and Ahmed 2006). As Sara Ahmed has argued pertinently, we need to think historically about what diversity marked a turn away from when it became a central framing device for thinking about inequality in the 1990s.

Thanks to Sally and Yvette, I had a chance to develop this line of thinking and research in my paper. In particular, I explored the ways in which large global corporations have come to co-opt and rebrand through ‘diversity’. I focused on two examples or events characterised by what I term ‘diversity capitalism’:  1) the branding of the Paralympics in 2011 (and the political struggles around this event and in particular its funding by ATOS– see the afterword to Revolting Subjects) and 2) ‘Diversity Summit: The Value of Inclusion’ a ‘conference for business leaders’ hosted by The Economist in London in 2012.

Image

The slogan of the ‘Diversity Summit’ was ‘Building a global culture of diversity & inclusion helps deliver to the bottom line’, which summed up my concerns with how diversity agendas (motivated by the politics of equality) had been co-opted by big business (motivated by the economics of profit). Lets consider a few headlines from this conference

Corporate commitment to D&I may be risky but consistency is critical to success.

Diversity is counting the numbers; inclusion is making the numbers count.

Building a global culture of diversity & inclusion helps deliver to the bottom line.

You might think there is nothing wrong with global corporations wanting to be more “diverse” in this regard, or even mind them recognising the multiple values of diversity if there is some ‘pay-off’ in terms, for example, of a more ‘diverse friendly’ workforce or labour policies, but once we begin to look more closely, to see who the corporate actors of diversity are on this global stage (major oil companies, securities companies, Coke and Walmart) you begin to get a feel for the disingenuousness of the diversity rhetoric. You begin to see how slippery diversity has become as a term as it is detached from longer histories of (class) struggle and incrementally emptied of any relation to humans/workers.

Diversity here is only about markets. There is an interest in the ‘diversity’ of things like ‘human capital’ and ‘branding’ only as a means to ‘diversify market share’. Today, at least in the worlds of institutions and businesses, diversity represents profit. 

So, if diversity is capital, and if the term belongs to a vocabulary that has been thoroughly capitalised by big business, is it a redundant category in terms of: 1) political and critical thought, and 2) policy and equality practices? Is diversity a conceptual tool or category which those concerned with the politics of equality might still ‘do’ something with? In other words, does diversity have anything to left to offer those seeking greater democracy, justice or redress for inequalities? Or do we need to develop a new grammar of resistance to neoliberal economic and social policies and the vertiginous inequalities which they are effecting? I am now further exploring these questions in new work on ‘Diversity Capitalism’ and I am grateful to Sally, Yvette and the seminar series, for a much needed push in this critical direction.

The ESRC Seminar Series on Critical Diversities@ the Intersection: Policies, Practices, Perspectives is ongoing with a further seminar in Leeds this autumn and a final conference at the Weeks Centre, South Bank University London, in June 2014.