‘Have you tried picking your nose yet?’: On navigating the city with acrylic nails by Louise Rondel


In the 18 months since I’ve started occasionally paying to have a manicure, I find myself constantly checking out other women’s nails: staring enviously at the hands of the receptionist at my doctor surgery, of the young lady who works at the café, of the women in my gym with their highly-polished, beautifully-shaped, chip-free acrylic nails. However, imagining a life spent immobilised, I also approach them with some trepidation: how do they get anything done? how would I get anything done? Furthermore, the world of acrylic nails, tips, infills and soak offs is alien to me. I don’t even know how to ask for acrylics to be put on? attached? done? fitted? So it is awkwardly that I enter the salon, hold my hands splayed out in front of me and ask clumsily for ‘long false nail extensions.’


My apprehension increases when, after being ushered to a seat, the manicurist pulls out a small electronic sander and proceeds to sand away the top layer of my nails. At this point, I realise that I am now fully committed as growing out the sanded nails will take months. The process of attaching the acrylic nails (or rather of attaching the tips and then layering with acrylic, followed by more sanding, buffing and filing) is complicated, it is lengthy and, at times, it is painful. It also produces a not unpleasant smell as the powder acrylic is painted onto my nails and then sanded into shape creating clouds of chemical dust. This dust settles on mine and the manicurist’s hands, arms and clothes, coating our skin and I am relieved when I am instructed to wash my hands. Once this process is finished ‘my’ nails look dry and matt, but two layers of polish and a top coat later, they look like the shiny nails I had coveted : the sheen belying both the ‘real’ nails beneath and the work behind the polish.

I joke with two other customers getting infills that I won’t be able to do anything with my hands. One warns me about trying to pick coins up off the floor, the other about getting an Oyster Card quickly out your pocket as the bus is arriving: both things I have to try and do in the next few days. On leaving the salon, I struggle to button up my coat and getting my purse out of my bag is challenging. In fact, anything I try and do with my hands during the next couple of days is frustrating and sometimes painful. It takes several attempts to unlock my phone and I miss letters when I try to type messages on it.


After three days, I no longer notice my nails and I certainly don’t feel impeded by them, they have ‘formed part of the sensory architecture of my body’.[1] And indeed I get a good deal of pleasure out of drumming my acrylic-reinforced nails on any hard surface (literally) to hand. I have modified my body’s actions, learning to open tins and packets with knives and to type on my phone with the sides of my fingers. Except for when I type at my computer keyboard; writing this, at the new angle makes the pollicis muscles ache.

I am now committed (somewhat reluctantly) to the upkeep of these (my?) nails, every two to three weeks I need to go back into the nail salon to get infills: where the nails have grown and so need to be sanded anew and filled in with acrylic. Before this is done, my fingers begin to ache again as the weight of the acrylic stresses at the join between the fake and the real nail and I am reminded that indeed these are not my nails and of the labour (mine and the manicurist’s) of making them mine again.


The seemingly superficial process of the manicure can reveal a lot about the knowledges and the skills we use to navigate the city: skill as ‘both a social and technical dexterity’.[2] Moreover, it highlights the corporeal dimension of these knowledges and skills, we negotiate city spaces through our bodies not only as sites of display but as sites of action, shaped by and shaping our urban experiences. The manicure poses the cyborgian question: ‘why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?’.[3] It opens the body out to the world suggesting the body as becoming, that ‘acquiring a body is a progressive enterprise that produces at once a sensory medium and a sensitive world’.[4] Thus we navigate the city; a navigation which shapes both bodies and cities and, as we feel our way, we should acknowledge that this navigation begins with our hands.

[1] Murray, C.D. (2004) ‘An interpretative phenomenological analysis of the embodiment of artificial limbs’, Disability and Rehabilitation 26:16, 963–973.

[2] Hall, S.M. (2012) City, Street and Citizen: The Measure of the Ordinary, New York and Abingdon: Routledge.

[3] Haraway, D. (1991) ‘A Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, London: Free Association Books.

[4] Latour, B. (2004) ‘How to talk about the body? The normative dimension of science studies’, Body & Society 10:2–3, 205–229.

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Why young Londoners are packing their bags for Beijing by Caroline Knowles.


The silent stashing of Mac laptops marks the shift from day to night in bars and cafes across the hipster world: from Dalston (London), to Williamsburg (New York) to Kreuzberg (Berlin), to Fitzroy (Melbourne) to Gulou, and Beijing’s funky hangouts. As twenty-something freelance workers head into the Beijing night they choose between its stripped back industrial aesthetic bars, its musical offerings – French gypsy, jazz, Beijing pop-rock or Mongolian folk – or just head to Mao Mao Pizza. The Beijing Party grinds into gear each night: opportunities to make new friends, hook up or just hangout, abound.

Gulou is a unique part of Beijing, a hypermodern city of twenty-one million and rising. It accommodates what remains of the otherwise demolished ancient courtyard houses (hutongs), in the area around the second of Beijing’s 6 ring roads, immediately north of Tiananmen Square and the political centre of Beijing. An area in the process of regeneration, it is inhabited by poorer Beijingers with longstanding connections to it, and by wealthy entrepreneurs who are refurbishing the hutongs, converting them into chic hotels and trendy bars frequented by young Beijingers and foreigners alike. Gulou is where old Beijing meets bohemia.

Young Londoners who lean towards the arts and cultural industries are catching on to what Beijing has to offer.   ‘It’s a really vibrant place to live… for design and fashion …and music and art’ [Celia]. Young writers and journalists are drawn to Beijing too. Alex, who has established himself there as a writer says, ‘History is happening here’ making it worthwhile plucking himself ‘out of leafy, privileged Oxford’ to live in ‘a crumbling Mao-era style apartment block in Beijing’. In the new geopolitics of significance, Beijing is a place that matters.


These young Londoners are from comfortable, professional, middle class families; the graduates of elite universities – Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Edinburgh and Durham. While their parents and elder siblings navigated smoother transitions into the world of work and independent living at the bottom of London’s property ladder, they face interminable internships on low (or no) wages, living at home, or couch surfing East London. London middle class life is changing; housing is unaffordable, and, while the financial sector draws in the talent, jobs in the cultural and creative industries are few and far between and badly paid. As Edward puts it; …my friends either live in London (and work in financial services) or they live abroad… London sucks everyone up; poor people go abroad… ’.

In jobs and vibrant lifestyles, Beijing provides an edge. It offers a sense of adventure into the unknown. Most young Londoners admit that they knew almost nothing about China before they arrived, but came to see what it was like anyway. Beijing distinguishes them from their less adventurous friends. ‘…It’s always nice to do something different just to make you different from everyone else.’ [Ali]. China’s mystery is a consequence of its limited exposure in the UK media, as well as its inaccessibility in linguistic and cultural terms. It’s a city they have to work at, and, sometimes struggle with. Its opaque bureaucracies frustrate Chinese and foreigners alike, but its difficulties feed the sense of it as a challenging and worthwhile place to live, a place that builds resilience and character; capacities that might be useful in navigating uncertain futures.

With no well-trodden pathways to careers or life to follow, many young Londoners are uncertain what to do next. In these circumstances Beijing provides a platform onto the rest of life, time-out to think about the next step, while having a good time.

Caroline Knowles is Co-Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research and Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. This article is drawn from a longer report on research she did in Beijing, supported by the ESRC.

REPORT LAUNCH : Thursday 28th January

TIME : 5pm

LOCATION : PSH 326, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths.


Images by Caroline Knowles.

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New Crass Massahkah: Remembering the fire at 439 New Cross Road by Les Back


In the early hours of Sunday 18th January, 1981 a devastating fire engulfed party goers at a birthday celebration being held at 439 New Cross Road for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson. In the final toll fourteen young black people between the ages of 14 to 22 had their futures stolen from them that night. Thirteen died in the fire from burns and suffocation, while one victim committed suicide two years later unable to live with the memory of its aftermath.

As a teenager I remember passing the ruined house at 439 New Cross regularly on my way to college at Goldsmiths. In the doorway was a makeshift memorial “thirteen of our children murdered” and beneath these words was a list of their names. The burnt out three-storey house was a reminder of the nature of the offense like an open wound scorched in the body of the city.

Eye-witness accounts pointed to arson and the suspicious behavior that night of a man who drove off in a white Austin van. Fire had been a staple weapon of racist violence and there had been other arson attacks on black community centres and youth clubs. Thirty-five years later the origins of the fire are still unknown.

It is important to remember the shameful indifference to these deaths at the time within the media and the political establishment. In the days that followed there was little coverage of the terrible loss of young life in the newspapers, with the exception The Sun that reported it on the front cover, and no statement of condolence from then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The cold silence of the white establishment conveyed a brutally simple message that the loss of young black lives was simply unimportant. As Johnny Osbourne sang pointedly ’13 Dead (and Nothing Said)’.

Out of the ashes of this terrible tragedy came an unprecedented political mobilization led by the families, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee and the wider black community. It resulted in the historic ‘Black People’s Day of Action’ on Monday 2nd March, 1981 where 15,000 people from all over the country filed by 439 New Cross Road bound for the Houses of Parliament and Fleet Street. As Paul Gilroy commented recently photographs of the young people who lost their lives were carried as a demonstration that their humanity mattered.


In a way this is my lasting memory. It was that sense of shock that this is where racism leads – to a massacre, not of what the media grudgingly referred to as ‘West Indian youngsters’, but to the murder of your neighbours, classmates and friends. A few years later I interviewed a white young woman called Debbie, she said: “I remember the New Cross Fire because I was quite friendly with the people who lost kids in that fire and I knew quite a few kids… I felt that quite personally, I was really upset by that. I went on the march and things. I remember it rained. I got soaked to the skin… That actually did a lot to bring the community around here together… both black and white people.”

Saying nothing in the face of racism was, and is complicity, whether it is the media at the time ignoring that the violence happened at all or police harassment and neglect or laughing at the jokes of racist comedians or agreeing with casual hatred conveyed over the kitchen table. Being proximate to these events for white residents – like myself – was also a lessons in political humility and learning what it meant to be against racism but respectful of the true costs borne by its victims.

In her history of black Lewisham Professor Joan Anim-Addo describes the meeting that was held in Deptford Town Hall on the first anniversary of the fire.   At that meeting John La Rose described the fire as “an unparalleled act of barbaric violence against the black community in this country.” It wouldn’t be the last time that black young people would encounter murderous racism on the streets of south London.

Linton Kwesi Johnson’s ‘New Crass Massahkah’ conveyed in dub poetry perhaps the most enduring and powerful form of historical witness.


Thinking back now perhaps the most appropriate way to remember those lives cut short so cruelly is to renew a commitment and vigilance to challenging contemporary racism in all its forms.


Les Back

Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London. L.back@gold.ac.uk

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A few Days in the Media Spotlight for Christmas by Les Back

As academic writers I guess we are used to being figures of fun. It is still kind of weird when the media gets interested in what we do. I had an unexpected festive flurry of encounters with journalists after a feature on class community and Christmas was featured in The Times on 17th December, 2015 (‘Festive lights reflect the class struggle’ p. 23 ). December was busy: not only did the research also receive coverage in the Australian press, but earlier in December I had been involved in a wonderful discussion on why studying everyday life matters on Radio 4. Hosted by Laurie Taylor, I was joined by Bev Skeggs and Sarah Neal. It was a very different story though when I found my research being debated days before Christmas on radio phone-in shows and in editorials.

I first wrote about Christmas decorations in New Addington, Croydon and how they help illuminate the changing politics of class, culture and housing for CUCR’s Street Signs magazine in 2014. But the media interest this time was linked to a full academic paper that was published in the journal Sociology in a special issue on studying everyday life.

So, in the week before Christmas I was featured on BBC 5 Live Breakfast, BBC London Television News and BBC Radio London Breakfast – as well as featuring on BBC Radio London on the 18th December who ran my interview as a ‘news story!’.


As I sat in my car in New Addington waiting for the next interview and listening to the phone-in discussion on BBC Radio London I realized that part of the journalistic interest in the story had a barbed quality. It provided the media with an opportunity to ridicule the interest we sociologists have in the mundane. “A professor wasting his time on and our money on studying Christmas lights!!! Whatever next?” The fact that many of the people phoning in were agreeing with me or criticizing the Scrooge-like humbug of the shows host was only part consolation.

I have always been an advocate of the importance of doing sociology in public but I must confess that this level of exposure was something of a shock. Not only in the desire on the part of the journalists to sharpen their teeth on me but also the shallowness of the engagement with the big issues like class hatred, urban division and the crisis in public housing that I was trying to link to the chromatic excess of the decorated houses in New Addington.

The Times Higher Education magazine commented on the story in the weekly round up section including a quotation from the full article (THE 24th– 31st December, 2015 p. 4).   “’In the glow of the Hopkinsons’ Christmas illuminations is a hope that is cast against the darkness of a society where class divisions are deepening and where a generation is being cheated of the prospect of an affordable home,’ says Professor Back in a sentimental flourish worthy of Dickens.”

I am sure this was intended to be damning with faint praise, as in academic circles sentimentality is taken as the sure sign of a feeble mind. But, the phase “worthy of Dickens” rang out. I’ve always thought of Dickens as peerless student of London life and a brilliant proto-ethnographer of the city. How many academic writers will be remembered or be as enduring as Dickens? I thought to myself – “I’ll take that anyway… I’ll definitely take that.”

A video about the research produced by the Goldsmiths Communications team has proven to be popular on social media too. You can read more about the research, read the paper and watch the video below.

credit : Ashley Simpson

Images by Les Back.

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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The clock is ticking for Dress For Our Time by Imogen Slater

' Her' on the bridge

Last week I went to meet Helen Storey to talk about her current project Dress For Our Time[1]. She is a Professor at the Centre for Sustainable Fashion (London College of Fashion)[2] and co-founder of the Helen Storey Foundation. She is still and thoughtful as she speaks, carefully considering both questions and her replies. In the 90’s she was lauded as a leading British fashion designer but her work has since moved into perhaps unexpected territories. She creates fashion derived arts installations as a vehicle for exploring, communicating and creating dialogue about issues that are unarguably important to us all; as humans how we interact with each other and our environment In doing so she combines current scientific research with media and design, working collaboratively internationally with leaders and innovators in specific fields.


Helen’s work is not usually found in galleries but instead in public spaces – shopping centres, parks, museums and schools, seeking to reach the most diverse of audiences[3]. In 2004 she created Wonderland in which dresses made of plastic were suspended above giant goldfish bowls which melted as they slowly descended into the water, provoking discussion around how we waste our finite resources. In 2008 she created Catalytic Clothing presented as a field of jeans hung scarecrow like on canes. They were treated with a washing powder containing an enzyme which literally filters and cleans air, focussing on air as our most basic resource and that its quality is dangerously poor for many of us.

Dress at St P

Her current project Dress For Our Time is launching to coincide with the global Climate Conference in Paris[4] and will be fittingly located at St Pancras Station (from 26th – 29th November), as delegates pass by to board the Eurostar.

This project has involved Helen making a dress out of a UN end of life tent[5]. It has a complicated structure that involves digital technology enabling information to be screened onto the dress via a computer link. I am struck by the human presence in this work, embodied by materials that we are clothed in and that protect us. It highlights human rights; that many don’t have the most basic of shelter or safety and that these are under threat for us all. The dress has a dual nature – a harbinger of doom in its death, shroud like quality, but also hope in the evocation of peaceful emissary, or oracle.

The project has been two years in the making and Helen describes it as a “collaborative collision” arising from dialogue with partners including the Met Office, UNHCR and Unilever, described as:

“people from very different backgrounds in science, business, education, humanitarian work, technology and fashion, to explore ways to engender a public debate about this most critical question.”[6]

The work controversially embodies climate change together with one of its human impacts – the imperative movement of people.

The potential audience is multi-dimensional; interacting on different platforms before, during and after. There will be those who physically encounter the work, but also those who do so remotely through digital media and who are also able to directly feed into the installation as it happens.

In the coming months, I will be working with Helen and the team to understand method; that is the exploration of the role that art and culture has to play in helping people connect with ‘difficult stuff’. Helen is concerned with how you can capture people’s imaginations in ways that allow them to engage, to think further and deeper rather than being put off or feeling told off.

Whilst funders (amongst others) may sometimes have difficulties in trying to categorise Helen’s work, I think there are elements that weave strongly throughout, creating a cohesive and powerful pattern. Of these what is fundamental, is her continuing belief in the power of us, as individuals and collectively, to change our world for the better, even in the face of the countdown to irreversible climate change.

Kingfisher_detail_by_#5E72F copy

Imogen Slater is a Research Associate at CUCR, Goldsmiths, where she has worked in various capacities for 15 years. Contact: i.slater@gold.ac.uk

She is also a Director of Art of Regeneration – http://www.artofregeneration.info/about-forte/


[1] For more information on the project and to see the film go to – http://www.dress4ourtime.org/

[2] http://www.arts.ac.uk/research/ual-staff-researchers/a-z/professor-helen-storey/

[3] For more information see http://www.helenstoreyfoundation.org/

[4] http://www.cop21.gouv.fr/en

[5] This was gifted by the UNHRC and was no longer in a usable condition.

[6] http://www.dress4ourtime.org/welcome#truth-and-realisation

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Making it Together? The Politics and Practice of Art and Mental Health Partnerships Conference


The Centre for Urban and Community Research (CUCR), Parental Mental Health Team (PMHT) and South London Gallery (SLG)  invite you to the Making it Together Conference.

Date : 3rd December

Time : 9.30 – 5.00 pm

Location : RHB cinema, Goldsmiths University of London, SE14 6NW.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 21.11.42



This conference takes as its starting point the publication of Making it Together, a report on Creative Families, co-written by CUCR and the Centre for Parent and Child Support (SLaM). Creative Families was an innovative multi-agency partnership between arts education arm of a contemporary art gallery (SLG) and the South London and Maudsley’s (SLaM) Parental Mental Health Team; it consisted of sixty art sessions for parents of under fives experiencing mental health problems.


The Making it Together Conference provides an opportunity to reflect on the current moment in which  arts organisations are aligning themselves with the health sector in ways that present both challenges and opportunities. There is, at present, recognition that social arts engagement not only improves ‘patient management’ and clinical outcomes but also makes a valuable contribution to the education and training of health practitioners. The development of social prescribing and patient choice over how to spend personal health budgets means that traditional health service provision is changing. What are the implications of these developments for access to the arts generally, and spaces of arts participation in particular? How do the arts and health sectors assess and demonstrate value across these programmes? What does success look like? Where do questions of ethics, aesthetic and authorship get addressed in these collaborations? Is there such a thing as ‘good practice’? What might be gained or lost in establishing this? We hope the conference will encourage a much needed vibrant exchange between art galleries and spaces of performance and creativity; health and social care professionals; and service users and communities.

We invite those currently working at the interface between the arts, mental health and social care including: mental health and social care practitioners, gallery arts education practitioners, funders, theorists, researchers and artists to come together to identify ways delivering of arts/mental health with energy and creativity in order to develop a shared sense of purpose.

The morning session will focus on question of ‘value’, partnership and evaluation. The afternoon session will focus on practice and the role of the artist, concluding with practical next steps and networking session.

2.Lawrence Bradby session_6_e

Confirmed speakers and panelists thus far include: Lawrence Bradby (Artist), Lucy Brazener (PMHT), Sarah Coffils (SLG), Davina Drummond (Artist), Liz Ellis (Heritage Lottery Foundation), Heather Kay (SLG), Daniel Lehan (Artist), Chris McCree (PMHT), Alison Rooke (CUCR, Goldsmiths), Helen Shearn (SLaM), Imogen Slater (CUCR, Goldsmiths), Emily Druiff (Peckham Platform).

Places for the conference are limited so please book quickly if you are interested. Lunch cannot be provided however drinks and refreshments will be made available throughout the day.

To reserve a place go to the South London Gallery Website booking page http://southlondongallery.org/page/making-it-together-3

To contact us, email Harriet on harrietsmith@gold.ac.uk


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Book Launch : Small Towns, Austere Times by Steve Hanson

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 22.55.30

Date : Tuesday October 27th

Location : Goldsmiths College, UoL, Ben Pimlott Lecture Theatre

Time : 5-7pm

My book, Small Towns, Austere Times, is a politicised re-write of PhD research undertaken at Goldsmiths, supervised by Les Back. I published the book with Zero, a company perceived to operate on the borderline between politics, academia and the lay reader. The aim was partly to present a kind of 21st century blues, or elegy, in regard to the state of public and private life in small towns, at this point in history.

Like many ethnographers, I tried to do two things at once, conceal and reveal. There are huge debates under this contradictory urge. Marx famously claimed that philosophy should aim to change, and change can’t take place via un-named semi-fictions, although the book is a collage. The larger picture, rather than the detail, is meant to provide an alternative to both think tank research and cosy localism. It is raw and fiery in places, intentionally so. But to do any real political work at all – and it is supposed to – it had to be quite specific about its examples.

The representational surface of the work essentially presents fictions made from ‘real’ research. They are stories, but ‘real’ stories taken from one small town, about ‘austerity’, class and ‘getting by’ in the early 21st Century. Where names haven’t been changed, it is in relation to public figures who are already in public-facing roles, and frequently make public statements. At one point, I was going to call Todmorden ‘Alltown’, after Jeanette Edwards’ semi-fictional, but very recognisable version of Bacup. Edwards’ small town sociology is a big influence.

But I decided that if the book were to do any real work, it would need to declare the place it described. The alternative, basically, was to write a novel, but novels are too distant, as for many they are categorised as things to pick up where the serious world ends and leisure begins. For Adorno and Horkheimer, the distinction between those two ‘worlds’ is a dubious one. I agree.

I tried to create an overall representation of Todmorden and its inhabitants, using ethnographic material that could then be joined to the main arguments being made in the book, about theory and sociology. Several examples of, for instance, people found practicing informal economies, have been merged into one figure, and the same technique has been applied to other research encounters. I have explained all of this in the many public talks I have given.

The book is filed under ‘sociology’, but I am quite ambivalent about its category. It could equally legitimately be described as investigative journalism, or political writing. But it is, with all that theory and terminology, still clearly an academic book, albeit one that questions some aspects of the disciplines it draws upon: Sociology, British Anthropology, Cultural Studies and Human Geography. Those subjects, in institutional form, are now shot through with an obsession over real ‘impact’. I wanted to write a book that spoke to both academics and the public, but also one that aimed its argument at the subject it researched, a small town.

The key questions I have received so far regarding the book can be placed into two categories, firstly, around ethics and revealing, and secondly around dialectics. I will try to explain the ethics and revealing dimension first.

The most frequent comments at my book talks were characterised by a concern that a writing of the social should not be allowed to touch that social. It was assumed that it should stay remote from its object, although in this case I couldn’t, as I lived in the town I studied.

Why should this be? In small towns, changing names is only a little short of pointless. One key point of the book is that the myth that everyone knows everyone else in a small town is just that, a myth. There are micro-worlds in small towns that never encounter each another, just like cities. Yet if you want to find out, in this small-scale place, you probably can.

At a recent talk, a notable sociologist exclaimed ‘my department would have you boiled’, for showing a picture, from a public blog, of a local political activist. He was quite aggressive and bombastic about the point. Afterwards, I decided that under his assumptions, the writing and representation of the everyday social was simply not possible.

Another respected sociologist seemed to feel that because I had researched some people I knew before I began the research, the project was somehow less serious. The whole history of anthropology seemed to lurk under this assumption, with the ‘legitimate’ subject, the colonial other, the ‘curio’ being brought back into the centre of Empire for codification, and ultimately to then fall into line as a potential resource, to be exploited. ‘You don’t examine your own tribe’, he seemed to be saying. Of course, he wasn’t consciously expressing some sort of nasty colonialism at all – and he’s a truly great sociologist – but so much still lurks in our unexamined assumptions about what is right and wrong for sociology. My book attempts to shake the ancient epistemological oak a tiny little bit.

So, the wider point I want to make here is that a writing of the social that doesn’t touch the social is another contradiction to add to those I outline in the book. The book itself is an attempt to present the contradictions embodied in its own epistemology. That is why I returned to dialectics.

Many of the questioners at my talks were not pulled back enough to see the arbitrary historical assumptions under the idea that sociology should never ‘disturb’ its participants, in the multiple senses of that term. I feel very ‘pulled back’, but I see how history operates under my own words too, ‘feel’, ‘sense’, ‘know’. The terms we all use structure the discourse, and therefore the subject. But I can’t create entirely new terms and expect to be understood.

The idea that I have ‘revealed’ people involved in criminality means, in practice, only that the people in the town know all too well who those people are, in all likelihood because they have received illegal goods from them. You can change the names – and in this case they picked their own pseudonyms – but really, here, and this is different to urban sociology, people know. With that material, I was trying to draw our attention away from the binary of ‘criminal’ and ‘clean’.

All of this becomes much more urgent, for me, when I consider the current spike in student numbers in criminology departments. The wider economy of a small town involves criminal money moving from legitimate circuits into ‘informal’ economies and then back again. We are all implicated. The same goes for the perceived split of the ‘local’ and ‘global’, and Todmorden is noted for its zealous localists. All these big, binary categories are properly dialectical, perceived opposites that are in fact part of one larger whole, a fact that, once acknowledged, makes the neat binary of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ begin to decay.

Yet at the same time, ‘holism’ is being declared here. By different groups, in particular ways. The stories of subjects trying to describe themselves as ‘complete’ and ‘whole’ in a global economy that rarely allows one to be much more than chopped-up. Or the ‘holism’ of the new age spirituality of permaculture enthusiasts. I wanted to show these ‘holisms’ as constructed, concealing agency and power, and to revive dialectics as a methodological and political tool, in the face of the politically abstracted, relatively recent adoption of the ‘expanded dialectics’ of Deleuze-Guattari and post-structuralism.

To be clear, I am very keen on Deleuze, and have collaborated on published pieces with Deleuze translator Robert Galeta, who studied with him at Paris VIII, and Derrida, whose lectures he also went to. But as Robert’s friend Hugh Tomlinson explained, when reviewing Derrida’s Writing and Difference for Radical Philosophy in 1972, Derrida represents the absolute zenith of a particular strand of philosophy, but also illustrates how useless, in practical terms, it is to reach that summit. Just actually what is at the top of Everest, after all? My book advocates practical dialectics, for this kind of work, but my second book is a much more expansive philosophical piece.

This brings me on to the second group of questions my book has attracted, which have circled around its ‘dialectics’. The main one came from a reviewer, Phil Smith, who seemed to want me to produce a ‘third term’, to go all the way through the dialectical process and find a transformed ‘synthesis’. The whole point of my take on dialectics is that an epistemological chemical fusion is not the point, that this tripartite version of dialectics, in general everyday circulation, is not what Hegel meant at all. Kierkegaard was equally confused in his critique of Hegel, and is actually my kind of dialectician. The real point, though, is that the ‘mess’ of the social world can never become a neat, always fake – because constructed by language – ‘synthesis’. Conclusions really are for fiction, and so Adorno’s Negative Dialectics is also important.

Small Towns, Austere Times presents a sociology of the other, but also a sociology of the close. I tried to offer up Todmorden, but also myself, as a subject of study. I couldn’t make that point in any length – thankfully – but I compared myself with some troubling figures in the landscape.

I would rather try to make work like this, rather than hide my ego in written performances that strategically hint at egolessness and egalitarianism, when clearly other things are going on under the surfaces, in academia as well as the places I ‘research’, investigate, explore, call it what you like.

I once went to deliver a guest lecture, for a sociology department. The Head of Department kindly gave me a lift back to the station in his car at the end of the day. It was summer, hot and sweaty, and the windows were down. He was suddenly, dangerously swerved into, by another car, in the rush hour traffic, a truly terrifying near miss.

‘All fucking Midlanders are thick!’ he shouted out of the car window. In his office, he had been talking eloquently about the ‘scapegoating’ and misrepresentation of the poor, and I still don’t doubt his sincerity for a second. Sociologists don’t turn off their rawer reactions to intense moments because they are sociologists, and the ones that successfully conceal them are more suspect to me than the ones who let it out and then think about that.

The wider point to make is that sociologists are never neat. They are as much of a mess as the subjects they describe, they are temperature gauges of the social, but their own quite particular socialising is the meter, the scale, always.

At a much simpler level, many sociologists are middle class, and they write in their own ‘metre’, both in the sense of poetics and measuring. I am half in and out of my class background, and I have retained, whether I like it or not, a spiky element of being between the factory floor language of my origins, and the perhaps more philosophical language of later life.

The ‘double ledger’ anthropology of Malinowski, one notebook for the institution, and one of fantasies about native women and other ‘taboo’ thoughts, show that the ‘civilised’ is just as primitive in its repression, and that Malinowski can be studied, equally legitimately, by the subject of anthropology.

It might be tempting to state that my book is not more deceitful, but more honest. But that statement would also conceal as much as it reveals. My book isn’t Malinowski’s two notebooks combined, that is not fully possible, not ever, and even his secret notebook didn’t contain the full ‘truth’ of repressed drives, and although they might settle it into doxa, a psychoanalyst wouldn’t find it all either.

Again, there is a much bigger point to make here. When I read the smooth, assured tone of much sociology, I don’t hear the speaking clock – proper diction on autopilot – I hear Daleks. The tone of my book is intentional. It is troubled, pessimistic and sometimes irritated. It is the splinter in my eye. My work is subjective. I never claimed it to be other. Yet some work presents itself as objective, while concealing an underground lava flow of subjectivity.

Michael Keith has written about how ‘angry writing’ is routinely excluded from academia, emotion is not just discouraged, but taboo. He also argues that in many ways, the ethnographer is already always unethical. I agree with all of that.

This has a much longer history, I would argue, that is not just to do with recent debates around subject-object cognition, but wrapped up in the cultural feminising of emotion across the nineteenth century. Yet everyone I know who writes and publishes about real places and people have irritation, frustration and anger. The assumption that no-one should be named is not ‘natural’, it is historical. I am trying to brush history against the grain a little, in terms of what I select for you to look at, and how I do that.

The ‘neutral’ work of ‘science’ is as anthropological, as cultural, in representational terms, as the epistolary novel or Bayeux tapestry. We have not ‘finally’ found some stable floor of knowledge in dry, academic, ‘sciencey’ or statistical research. Great thinkers, as disparate as A.N. Whitehead and Derrida, understood this well. Goldsmiths has a very special place in its heart for Whitehead, and a shrine to him in architectural form. What I have done is not a solution to those problems either, but it is offered as a polemical intervention, into those larger arguments.

There are huge ramifications here. I have just received peer review feedback on a paper for a respected journal. The first reviewer condemned my argument as essentially false, due to its occasional ‘colloquial language’. Think about that. Think about the long struggle to bring othered ethnic voices into literature and the humanities. Then think about class. I have a choice to tailor the language and publish, minor corrections, or leave it unpublished, but only because the second reviewer had no problem with the tone of the writing. This said, I have also received criticism for my work with Manchester Left Writers, as some of our readers thought that I wasn’t working class enough. I am also very troubled by that kind of narrow cultural ethnocentrism. ‘Shot by both sides’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

Academic structures and legal frameworks – the two are directly linked – militate more and more against my kind of production, but more importantly the publication, of this kind of knowledge. That, I want to argue, is far less ethical than the ethical issues my book might immediately raise. There is an assumption that in the west we are tolerant and liberal, and the east is repressive and censorious. I am chafing a little, and I think only a little, against the grain of what it means to produce knowledge.

Sociologists go into meltdown over ethics and representation, as trolls cruise theatrical web forums, wearing the mask of an anonymous username, pouring bile into everything they find. The sense of ‘justice’ in research ethics is skewed. I named some public figures in my book, yes, but I also named me, and I told you where I lived. Part of my book’s undeclared manifesto is for a revival of public debate and a new agonism of public life, along the lines of the Richard Sennett of Uses of Disorder and The Fall of Public Man.

Some questioners at my talks, including the well-respected academics I described above, seemed to feel slightly unsettled by this, and were dismissive when I refused to completely defer to their sagely status.

The subject of my second book may surprise some people. It involves the study of Abiezer Coppe, the ranter, who was gaoled and had to falsely recant. When I read what he said now, and historical studies of the era in which he lived, it is clear that he was gaoled for broadly speaking the truth, whatever the details. But only time will show the wiser if the broad picture I have produced holds or not.

Foucault, were he alive, would see through all of this. He would say that the ethical research committee is a confession booth. We check in our baggage. It is an amnesty. Here is a science of ‘revealing’ that militates against its own revelations. Science, at root, just means ‘knowledge’, although the word has of course been loaded with other meanings. The one thing we can say about knowledge, with total certainty, is that it is never complete, pure or final. It is always contestable.

Someone suggested recently that I may be happier as an investigative journalist, a fair point, but journalistic training is largely a libel assault course. This is a big part of what ‘ethics’ really means to university departments, though many who sit on the committees seem blind to this. It is a legal disclaimer for institutions that provides no guarantees for individuals – researched or researcher – nor does it really create any watertight guidance in the face of the messy, compromised, sticky situations of research in the real world. Foucault would understand how these ‘scripts’ of academia operate. All of this seems to be fully accepted in departmental back room chat, but rhetorically talked-around in public sociology forums, written or oral.

Most sociology is produced and then vanishes, touching little, made solely to maintain academic careers. The idea that sociology influences policy and central change is overstated, even when it is hired explicitly to do so. I have been there, when the government minister came round the breakout groups, and nodded at everything that was said, but only began to listen when that matched what he had on his brief.

The ethical committee is not the ‘conscience’ of sociology, the superego. It is its unconscious. The place all the ‘bad’ things go, the processes the sociologists make themselves unaware of. The body temperature bath they lower themselves into. The net that filters what cannot be presented to the polite ‘civilised’ world. A civilisation that represses in order to shape, as Freud explained, tames nothing. It does not make the world nicer, or friendlier, it only re-shapes it. We throw off our moral clothes at night, for some salacious dreams, and put them back on in the morning.

We talk about impact, then create work that has little, except for internal review procedures. We talk about having political bite, there is so much posturing about being ‘radical’ among university staff, then we take ourselves to ethical committees to have our teeth and claws removed. I don’t consider my own work radical at all. I think the term ‘radical’, as I have stated in my book, is also often a testimony that covers over other things. My sociology is actually quite traditional in some ways.

We cannot take these testimonies at face value, in the institution, or out of it. We need to look at the latent functions at play. What is really happening when ‘radical’ is announced? What is the underlying social function, which is often very far from the straightforward surface declaration, however detailed the transcript. All of this will be going on in my own work too. My declarations here, right now, will also contain underlying social functions that I am not aware of. That requires another person to decode and unpick. A sociologist I know is doing this already. Psychoanalysts are often required to be in analysis. Perhaps sociologists should have their own social routinely ‘ologied’.

In his famous book on working class Leeds, Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart clearly concealed his resentments and politics. To ‘clearly conceal’ is not to conceal at all, a point I make in my book. Uses of Literacy presents a whitened, cloth cap history, which hides its rawer reactions to place, and it is an absolutely wonderful piece of work. Those two dimensions do not mutually cancel one another out. People who have read my work will be sick of the word by now, but this is why dialectics are important. But the wider point I want to make about this book by Richard Hoggart, is that if you are going to make work that looks through the glass splinter in your eye, blown there by the storm of history, then look fully and publish, and if necessary be damned.

That kind of work can’t be made by asking committees or communities for their advice on how to edit or present it. Why is it that this is still considered a priori ‘ethical’? It may be essential in some cases, but not all. When you understand the arguments I am making about the social world of Todmorden, ask yourself, would it then be sensible to ask the subjects to then edit them? What would be left of that work to publish? It isn’t the case that researching and writing the social should involve a contestable act, it is a contestable act, by nature. So is the work of tick box institutional ethical committees. The ethnographer is unethical by default. If I had worried too much about that I would have done nothing and given up long ago.

When you step beyond neatly bounded codes, there lies a landscape with no rules, an amoral field, essentially. Yet we are asked to step beyond codes, routinely, by institutions. That is the nature of a PhD. It is the rhetoric of innovative academia. Therefore the tick box ethical committee is riven with contradiction, as it simultaneously asks us to ‘go beyond’, at the same time as it practically militates against that doing. It is a kind of punishment-reward relationship. I am for a post-foundational neo-humanist ethics that involves the constant re-negotiation of relations in a world of sheer complexity. Marcus Morgan, now at Cambridge, is emerging as an important philosopher of practice for me. Institutions need to pass the responsibility for research ethics on to the practitioner, to scatter the living nightmare of their bottomless and helpless concern to ‘the field’.

I did not make this work because I wanted a nice, comfortable academic career, but because I had no choice, to name the place and give a wider picture of it, an alternative picture to the one that is so often broadcast beyond its boundaries, by those with access and the ability to do so. Cultural capital dictates so much power.

I worked at a local garden centre in Todmorden, for an ex-Communist who ignored employment laws, refused to hire smokers, refused to let people go part-time, illegality which was covered-up by the provincial attitudes and ignorance that, as I see it, is often described as a kind of fuzzy, ‘warm’ localism. This kind of informalism is not necessarily benign or kind. It is not and never is that straightforward. I worked in the garden centre warehouse unpacking boxes from China and Dutch trolleys full of flowers and plants from Holland, as the driver sold duty free tobacco and other items to fellow warehouse workers. Here was the international trade, formal and informal, in the same place, masked by the testimonies to ’round here’, and what it consists of. It is constructed by those flows, the ’round here’.

It is not desirable to return to the willful medievalism of a local in which comparison to other ways of life is no longer possible. The Dutch driver, for instance, in his clogs, unintentionally slipping into a different language occasionally. These traces of otherness are crucial for basic freedom. The internet tells of other ways of life, but it doesn’t show us, and its telling is always partial, mixed-up, and again covers as much as it reveals. Yet there are people in these locales who want to reduce the circulation of materials and labour into ever smaller borders, for worthy ecological reasons, but with, as I see it, extremely troubling sociological ramifications.

So, much more broadly, Small Towns, Austere Times is about ‘seeing’, which is why I often think about, and return to, King Lear. In ‘the local’, people rail, often contradictorily, at what they can see, wind turbines, for instance – Walsden was recently declared to resemble the ‘land of giants’ – but not the wider processes and concerns, which they can’t see. Blindness to macro processes is a theme of Small Towns, it is its core political dimension.

The eyes see perfectly well, but they are blind to the real power, framed by global flows of capital, or its flipside, a declared ‘holism’ and ‘generosity’ that masks other processes, that are, in fact, a different thing, when one measures the gap between the rhetoric and the assemblage. The sightless do often see better. All of this made me understand how it is still possible to be an anthropologist in your own country.

I have been deliberately provocative here, to make a series of points, and to shake things up a little, in order to stimulate debate. These concerns though, I think, are all necessary considerations for a sociology of the future. Paul Gilroy and Les Back have described a sociology of ‘risk’ as necessary. Small Towns, Austere Times, is my personal response to that. The point is to change, not just describe, and change hasn’t been so urgent for a long time.

– Steve Hanson, Manchester, 2015

Blog: drstevehanson.wordpress.com
Twitter: @drstevehanson

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