Some holiday reading – Why so negative?

There’s something very precious and contrary in these austere times in having a holiday away. Not mentioning the carbon cost to the planet, when many are suffering greater hardship and others working zero-hour contracts getting to go to a conference in America and spend time traveling around afterwards seems to be the kind of thing that should only be whispered about out of embarrassment, and the fear that someone in government will hear about it and, following the ‘bed room tax’, introduce a ‘day-off subsidy’ for anyone not in the private sector.  Well, in hushed tones, after attending the brilliant ICQI 2013 I had a two-week holiday in Chicago and New York… where I did a lot of reading. I never said I was a happy-go-lucky guy. Anyway, I’m going to write a few posts about some of the reading I did while away, first up:

Why so negative?

During Maggie MacLure’s pre-BERA seminar (read about it here) a critical theorist explained that she felt a great deal of anxiety about analysing or even talking about a video of a group of small children happily dancing.  I was struck by the idea of what is critical educational research that can’t engage with happy children?

I remembered this while reading the excellent David Graeber’s ‘Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value’, in which he says of critical theory:

The idea was always to unmask the hidden structures of power, dominance, and exploitation that lay below even the most mundane and ordinary aspects of daily life. Certainly

Unknownsuch things are there to be found. But if this is all one is looking for, one soon ends up

with a rather jaundiced picture of social reality. The overall effect of reading through this literature is remarkably bleak; one is almost left with a Gnostic feeling of a fallen world, in which every aspect of human life is threaded with violence and domination. Critical theory thus ended up

sabotaging [its] own best intentions, making power and domination so fundamental to the very nature of social reality that it became impossible to image a world without it. Because if you can’t, then criticism rather loses its point. (Graeber 2001: 30)

While on holiday, I also read Andy Merrifield’s (2011: 110-11) ‘Magical Marxism’ – cheers Cassie for the recommendation! – in a section titled ‘The Prison-House of Negativity’, he says,

An issue here is the problem of negativity, a constant bugbear of the Marxist tradition from the very beginning… To a certain extent Marxism’s Hegelian origins explain a Unknown-1lot about why this has been so.  After all, Marx took plenty from Hegel’s idealist thought, a thought that suggested history hinged on ‘dialectical movement’, an immense epic of the mind striving for unity… [In Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit (1807)] Unity is the unity of contradiction, of negative force, of looking the negative in the face and living with it. Without contradictions, everything is void, nothingness… For Hegel, in short, world history is dramatized by the darker side of things, through what things aren’t, through denying (cf. the Latin negare), through the predicate not-something.

So, now that I’m back from holiday I’m thinking about whether Hegel is the, or one of the, reasons why happy children are a theoretical blindspot for critical theory?  If so, how have theorists engaged with the negativity of critical theory or equally how can we can develop a critical theory of something rather than not-something?  I’m also interested in the conditions and relationships between academia and the world out there when talking about something rather than not-something.  A critical scholar can sit in his/ her chair and talk about the not-something of neoliberalism but then to write about something, a preferable something, seems entirely different. In all likelihood it requires something to be out there and exist, a tented city of activists or a food co-operative, unless an author is proposing hypothetical or utopian worlds. Then what is the theorist in relation to this something and how do they help bring into existence less of the not-something and more of the something? There is the danger, as David Graeber describes, of becoming ‘a theorist of a non-existent social movement.’

If anyone has any answers or ideas then please let me know…

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