Friday, 29 March 2013

Atheist Temporality

Patrick O'Connor recently gave a presentation on some of his current work at the Power, Time and Agency conference at the University of Manchester, 17-18 January 2013.

His presentation involved a position paper on a wider research project on the notion of atheist temporality. Rejecting the progressive notions of linear temporality, and the historical destiny of scientific materialism, it was argued that we need a revised understanding of temporal and social agency. This involves a retrieval and engagement with of some of the key insights of Nietzsche, Derrida, Heidegger and Bergson. Beginning with taxonomy of the various types of atheism that he was deviating from, it was argued that that the condition of identities, ethical agency, and human liberation and political subjectivity relies on a discursive notion of temporality. Such a discursive notion of temporality depends on re-casting our understanding of chronological time towards ecstatic time, everyday temporality towards authentic and engaged temporality, mechanistic temporality towards embodied temporality, a discourse on life towards a discourse on shared mortality and finitude, and the ethical and political in terms of common temporalities and generic solidarity. The paper provided an existential atheistic account of atheist temporality with a view to combatting ethical and political sectionalisation and marginalization.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The 'right' to bear arms?

Liz Morrish investigates the language of the Second Amendment.

I spent the recent Winter Break in the USA, arriving in New York on the day of the appalling mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. It seemed from the voices of outrage that this incident might open the way to reform of the permissive laws on gun ownership in the US. Indeed, a whole week passed before any sign of 'pushback' from the politically powerful National Rifle Association. I listened to the Vice President of America's National Rifle Association, Wayne Lapierre, defending what he assumed is his constitutional right to bear arms. To this speaker, it is a Right which is hardly necessary to justify, and brazenly, in the certainty of his analysis, he proclaimed, "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

This may seem an absurdity to most people in Europe where gun ownership is restricted by law, but in the USA it is well received by a large proportion of the population whose gun ownership rates are 88.8 per 100 people. Indeed CNN were claiming that there are more gun sale outlets in the US than all supermarkets and McDonalds burger restaurants combined.  How did guns become so essential to American culture? Why is personal gun ownership so vigorously defended by so many people? The NRA is fond of pointing to the US Constitution's Second Amendment which is said to guarantee the citizen's right to bear arms, but rarely is the full text of the amendment quoted. What the statute actually says is: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." The right to bear arms is frequently cited by proponents and adversaries of gun control laws, but in the weeks after the Newtown tragedy, I did not hear any mention of the important first clause. 

I am not writing as an expert on constitutional law, rather, I write as a linguist versed in English grammar. There are three things to note about the construction of this statute: firstly, the initial clause ("A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state…”) is a reason-type subordinate clause - it provides the justification for the provision of the main clause. Secondly, we note that this clause is non-finite - it contains no tensed verb - and this usually gives the proposition a general applicability. Thirdly, and most importantly, the clause is placed first, and so fulfils the grammatical role of theme and focus of the sentence. In layman's terms, this first clause is the most important bit of the sentence.

For the founding fathers of the US constitution to have laid so heavy an emphasis on a "well-regulated militia" suggests that this was considered the necessary and appropriate context for the keeping and bearing of arms. They might have envisaged a situation similar to that found in Switzerland where young adult males are expected to serve in a people's militia, and to keep their weapons at home as part of their military obligations, in a state which has no standing army. We can be sure that the second amendment was not drafted with a view to providing untrained civilians with unfettered access to the assault weapon of their choice. At some point, the US state decided to entrust its defence to a national professional military arm, not a civilian militia.  It is unfathomable that Members of Congress could attempt to justify the carrying of concealed weapons on university campuses and the routine arming of teachers. It is already common to find US college campuses employing their own armed police force. We can only hope that they are "well regulated", but the consequences of both police and students having guns is a prospect I'm glad we do not face at NTU or the UK generally.

The US quite rightly defends its Constitution vigorously, but the language of the statute ensures that there need be no undermining of its wisdom in order to bring about serious restriction on gun ownership.   

Liz Morrish is Principal Lecturer in Linguistics in the Centre.

Friday, 15 March 2013

The Politics of the Campaigning Culinary Documentary

At the end of last year, Joanne Hollows gave a paper on ‘The Politics of the Campaigning Culinary Documentary’ at the International Symposium on Media, Food and Identity at the University of Copenhagen (13-14 November 2012).

Joanne identified campaigning culinary documentaries as structured around a problem-solving narrative in which television personalities and celebrities drawn from the world of food media seek to utilize their status to affect some kind of social, economic or cultural change. While drawing on conventions from lifestyle programming and documentary formats, they frequently also draw heavily on conventions from reality TV. This sub-genre not only relies on the ‘makeover’ format in its use of ‘ordinary people’ whose habits must be transformed but represents the food personality or celebrity as an ‘inspirational’ figure who is potentially capable of effecting a much wider-scale makeover of institutions, industries or practices.  Many of these conventions were first utilized effectively in Jamie’s School Dinners (2005) and, in the UK, the format has remained closely associated with Channel 4 in series such as Jamie’s Ministry of Food (2008), Hugh’s Chicken Run (2008), The People’s Supermarket (2011) and Jimmy and the Giant Supermarket (2012).

In this paper, Joanne focused on these examples to explore how they represent the relationships between the classed and gendered identities of both the ‘inspirational’ food personalities at the centre of these series who act as campaigning moral entrepreneurs and the ‘ordinary people’ whose habits must be made-over or transformed if social change is to occur. She examined how these identities are associated with different ethical dispositions, both in Bourdieu’s theoretical sense of the term and in relation to more commonsense understandings of ‘ethical consumption’.  However, Joanne also suggested that these series work to individualize social and economic problems and also work to associate political responsibility with charismatic individuals rather than government responsibility. This is located within a broader context of the current political climate in the UK.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Queer/ing Regions: Symposium Report

Cuneyt Cakirlar reports on the Centre's recent symposium on Queer/ing Regions.

Since their paths crossed at NTU, Cuneyt Cakirlar and Hongwei Bao were having conversations about their research and the ways in which they respond to the contemporary scholarship on queer globalization(s) and transnational sexuality studies. While collaborating with students, activists, policy-makers, artists, filmmakers – whose work bears a critical affinity with the growing trends of queer and LGBT activism in Turkey and China, they realized that these “travels” were critically informing their discourse of cultural translation between regions.   

Cuneyt and Hongwei decided to facilitate a dialogue between scholars whose practice contains "regional" emphases in queer contexts. One of their inspirations was Gayatri Gopinath’s theorization of the region. Gopinath questions how useful regionality can operate as “a concept through which to explore the particularities of gender and sexual logics in spaces that exist in tangential relation to the nation but that are simulatenously and irreducibly marked by complex national and global processes” (2008: 343). Thus, the main objective of Queer/ing Regions has been to address the possibilities/potentials of a critical "(self-)regioning" and thus to question the ways in which the complex regional/local formations of sexual dissidence emerges as objects of theoretical inquiry when situated within a global context by means of academic and activist practice.

Exploring critically the "transnational" turn in the second-wave queer scholarship which questions the global/ised intersections between race, ethnicity, nation/diaspora, gender and sexuality, the symposium "Queer/ing Regions" aimed to facilitate a critical intellectual exchange focusing on the discourses of the "regional" in contemporary queer criticism. The organizers attempted to revisit the critical potentials of reclaiming the regional in queer critique. Rather than presuming the regional actors as passive recipients of global flux, this conversation focused on the complex dynamics of local/global systems in sexual politics. How can we understand transnational formations of sexual subjectivities  without assuming a radical alterity between the local and the global, or the west and the east? How can we understand the uneasy nexus of community and sexuality in a global framework without avoiding to hear the voices of regional actors? How can we identify modes of negotiation and contestation in the encounter of the local sexual politics/practices with the Gay International?

The first session of Queer/ing Regions started with Professor William Spurlin’s paper on the new forms of ‘queer’ writing emerging in French from the Maghreb. Accounting for the historical influence of French colonialism and Arab Muslim culture, Spurlin’s paper explored how “this new writing (Eyet-Chékib Djaziri. Rachid O., Abdellah Taïa. Nina Bouraoui) has created spaces specifically for the textual and social negotiation of new forms of dissident sexuality  and regional belonging whilst simultaneously blurring received cultural distinctions between gender-defined performances of homosexuality (active/passive) and struggles for a sexual identity as a discursive position (hetero/homo) not merely reducible to its manifestations in the West.” Following Spurlin’s talk, Howard Chiang considered Sinophone studies as an emerging field that suggests a conceptual framework exposing “where the liminal spheres of queer studies and Chinese Studies overlap”. Chiang ended his talk with a suggestive rereading of one of the most celebrated films in which homosexual experience in the PRC is depicted, Lan Yu (2001). In the final paper of this panel, Professor Richard Phillips shared his reflections and observations on the workshop “Postcolonial Sexualities: Emerging Solidarities” which he recently organized at the University of Sheffield. Phillips explored matters of “empirical and theoretical predicaments”, “dispersed agencies” and risks of “authenticity fetishisms” implied within discourses of the regional.

The second panel of the symposium hosted three geographers who attempted to relate to the region-as-concept from within the disciplinary foundations of geography. Gavin Brown suggested that queer studies (and lesbian and gay studies before it) have periodically considered the role of political economy in shaping sexual identities and politics, but has not engaged with political ecology. “Mak[ing] a case for understanding sexual identities in the context of resource consumption (and local ecologies) at various spatial scales”, Brown’s paper argued that “the emergence of 'modern' gay identities in the Global North largely coincides with the period of high-carbon consumption.” Following this discussion, Silvia Posocco responded explicitly to the organizers’ invitation to consider “discourses of the regional in contemporary queer criticism”. Suggesting that “comparative and regional might become contradictory tools”, Posocco discussed some of the problems and possibilities that open up “when one foregrounds the epistemological and political dimensions inherent in how scale, relation and perspective are figured in queer analysis.” Following Posocco’s inspiring paper, Jon Binnie referred to recent debates in human geography on “the relational politics of scale, networks and assemblage to pose questions of contemporary transnational queer studies.” Relying on his recent empirical study of transnational activism on LGBTQ politics in Central and Eastern Europe, Binnie suggested that “these debates can enrich debates on the politics of space within transnational queer studies, by opening up new agendas for a critical engagement with the region.”

In the final panel, building upon her previous research on Shanghai's gay political economy, Camila Bassi explored the remarkable phenomenon of the reality television show, "Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Super Girl Contest". Bassi made connections “between the socio-cultural and the politico-economic aspects of the Super Girl phenomenon, in order to fully illustrate the radical space that was created in China for an antihero and lesbian identity.” Following Bassi’s discussion, Enda McCaffrey explored shifting male homosexual practices in specific urban centres in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s. McCaffrey examined “how homographies of this period, set against a unique backdrop of terrorism, military occupation and urban segregation, stand out as traces of a queer ars erotica that is integrative, relational and invisible, but which have been lost to later hypervisible marks of gay identification.” The final paper of the event was Bethan Stevens’ piece which offered a creative exploration of a queer experience of travelling between Sussex, England, and Kigali, Rwanda, in 2007. Attentive to small details, Stevens’ writing sought to show “how the local, regional and global interact in everday life, sometimes in uncanny ways.”

We genuinely hope that the diverse multi-disciplinary content of the symposium triggered inspiring and productive conversations, and hopefully, an ongoing dialogue for further collaborations.