ISRF Symposium – Care, Power, Information

In February 2022, former ISRF Fellow Alexander Stingl discussed his book Care, Power, Information with Lewis Gordon.

LARS CORNELISSEN

ISRF Academic Editor


How are academic knowledge practices implicated in histories of colonialism? And what would it mean to decolonise the university and the knowledge systems it produces?

An online ISRF event in February 2022 brought former ISRF Fellow Alexander Stingl (National University of Ireland, Galway) together with Lewis R. Gordon (University of Connecticut) to discuss Alex’s important new book, Care, Power, Information.

This edited symposium draws together a curated section of the book launch panel, as an aide-mémoire for those present at the event and a resource for those unable to join us. A video recording of the event is available here.


Alex Stingl

This book was written in a critical time in my life, where for the past couple of years I wasn’t sure how long I could realistically sustain the life of a researcher, the life of a scholar and academic. Now that I have some sort of job security—whatever that means, in our day and age—it means asking questions of my community, that I remain accountable, and that my community holds me accountable in terms of me not, basically, turning coat—of still keeping in mind that there are so many people out there who are not in a secure position and who will continue fighting in precarious positions not just for the knowledge they believe in, but just for sheer survival. 

So this context is important for understanding where the book comes from. Yet it’s also important to not see this as a book that directs its anger at people, out of a kind of a job envy or something. That would be to misunderstand what the book is about and to misunderstand one of its key messages, which is: we should not allow ourselves to be pitted against one another. This is something I would like to speak about in this introduction to the book as well. 

Let me just begin by saying a few things about where the book actually came from. This has a lot to do with my previous book, The Digital Coloniality of Power.[1] There I was interested, first and foremost, in the following idea, or in the following conclusion: more often than not, digitalisation and digital culture reinforce and make worse pre-existing social inequalities and social injustices. I wanted to find out what that really means from the point of view of social theory, using lessons I had learned from reading decolonial scholars, such as Walter Mignolo, Madina Tlostanova, Maria Lugones, Manuela Boatcă, Julian Go, and many others. I wanted to bring this knowledge into the various theory backgrounds I had, and a number of questions came up for me. What does attention and relevance mean today? What is this long-running historic undercurrent? What is the relation that social science and sociology as academic disciplines have to these developments?

I wasn’t just interested in the role of social theory in these areas in a positive or negative sense, but also as points of resistance. Here, I was inspired not so much by Marxist scholars as by scholars like Ruha Benjamin, who is thinking about technology and resistance, technology and racism, in very creative and productive ways. 

So, in being inspired by that, I started to see these long-running trajectories in society that intersect with digitalisation to reinforce the coloniality of power. Hence you could say that the inequalities and injustices digital culture produces are nothing new under the sun; they’re really just intensifications of the same old, same old, so to speak. But even so, these trajectories need to be studied from a sociological perspective. This produces another obstacle, however, because while sociology is a very productive and critical enterprise, it is also in its genesis a beast of Empire, which was created by Modernity (with a capital M) and all its Imperial discontents. So even if you consider yourself—as I do—a sociologist at heart, you have to acknowledge that legacy; you can’t run away from it or ignore it, as some people do. What’s called for is accepting that history and taking responsibility for it.

And that is what I’ve been trying to do with this new book, Care, Power, Information.[2] The book was in many ways also a struggle with myself, with my positionality as a white male person from the Global North, from Germany, who enjoys a lot of privileges. And even though I come from a very working-class background, I do enjoy a lot of privileges. Privilege here does not mean that I have kinds of advantages, but it means that I have the privilege, in a sense, not to see certain kinds of things, not to see certain injustices because I’ve never experienced them, which means I’m somewhat blind to them until someone points them out to me. What a lot of scholars do, I’ve realised, is to just ignore that and say “oh, no, that can’t be true.” And this is the kind of gaslighting we see happen very often and that I saw happen a lot in academia towards women, towards scholars of colour. This made me realise that I needed to overcome my own privilege but also that sociology as a discipline has something to learn about overcoming its own privilege. This would mean, for example, understanding what it means to be a discipline, understanding what it means to have a canon of supposedly ‘genius’ great classic thinkers. 

What does it mean to decolonise such a discipline? That started for me with the idea that, first, you have to provincialise. You cannot just take these scholarships and these ideas from non-Western or Global South backgrounds, contexts, discourses, and then appropriate them for a Western discourse. You also cannot act like Western philosophy has always had this universal knowledge and we just need to retranslate it a little bit and then we’ll realise that the Western tradition has always been in possession of the universal idea after all. So we need to recognise that provincialisation means to understand the limits of your theory and your methods by understanding the times and places, the social situations and cultural contexts they came from. We also need to recognise the good and the bad work they’ve done through their existence. Giving up on the universality of these theories and methods doesn’t mean that they are suddenly worthless. It just means taking responsibility.

For me, this work also included a lot of self-searching about my person, my growing up, the interactions I’ve had over my life, and putting them into this work and understanding what kind of a scholar I am and what kind of a scholar I want to be—together with Others. This last bit is crucial, because one thing that I learned about academia today is that the precarisation of our positions as scholars works so well because we are so trained into thinking as individuals, as individual silos with closed-off borders, such that, for example, sociological theory is a monologue that we produce in our little offices with our doors closed. And this is how, in spite of their lip service, many people operate. Just think about how you produce your doctoral dissertation. Yes, that work happens in interaction with your supervisor and occasionally in little writing groups, but have you ever seen a dissertation that really is a true community conversation? There are some around, but they’re very rare. But the question is: what would happen if we thought about this as the standard? 

So the book is an attempt to think through these ideas. To start, it identifies a few things surrounding the Precarisation of Everything. For me, precarisation means, above all, that you do not allow people—but also organisms, or our ecosystem—enough material support and secure their own reproduction, but you leave just enough not to die off (yet). This tension marks the current climate we exist in—and when I say ‘climate,’ you can see that this also refers us to climate change. The way we are not really working towards a solution to climate change, or attempting to go back to a place where the climate is doing better, is precisely precarisation: we’re just trying to find a spot where yes, we don’t die off yet, but it’s also not enough to bring anything new forward, to create a more just world, to come together in a more equal world, et cetera. 

Now, if you trace this problem back in time, you’ll notice that, conceptually speaking, the way that the global north or the West has thought of things like property, for example, first as part of colonialism and from there into legal thought as it is still practised today in international law, leads back to the ancient Greek idea of the oikos. This described the household and the household’s property—to which slaves also belonged—and it describes the family as structure in ancient Greece. 

The point here is not to argue, as many people have mistakenly done, that ancient Greece is somehow the original abode of intellectual thought, or anything like that. Indeed, as someone like Lewis Gordon has clearly shown, the history of thought goes back much further in history, and the Greeks only replicated ideas they encountered in other places and other cultures and other languages. Even so, if you want to provincialise where the modern European idea of property comes from, it is important to identify what contexts it is rooted in and why it is so extremely violent, why it leads to slavery and colonialism. The answer that my book offers to this question lies in the idea of disposability: the idea that not only nature, not only animals, but also human beings can be rendered disposable. Decolonial scholars like Enrique Dussel, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and Maria Lugones identify this as rendering people as killable, rapeable, destroyable.

This is what colonial thinking does—colonialism is not just about nation states. No, there’s also a coloniality of thinking that has colonised our minds, our ways of experiencing the world, seeing the world, ascribing values. And sociology as a discipline has adapted to that, of course, as academic disciplines do, and I wanted to analyze this. I’ve tried to describe alternatives in a way that they present an invitation. I talk a lot in my work about infrastructure, by which I mean above all that the infrastructure for almost anything is really knowledge labour and cultural labour. This is key to what I call ‘BluesCollarship,’ a term that brings together the actual labour of the blue collar with the blues, which is something I have learned from the writings of Lewis Gordon—who I’m so grateful is the discussant for this event. He’s one of my intellectual heroes, really, and I admire him and his work so much. 

So I try to take the blues into account, departing from the idea that even if the blues does not originate amongst white people, there is something in the blues that means we can still connect with one another over the melancholia, over the suffering it contains, because people also in the Global North, even white men, can suffer in this world, do suffer in this world. So it is by establishing points of connection and thinking together with one another, but owning up to our mistakes as well, that we can shape a different kind of scholarship. And I want to call this BluesCollarship, not as a prescription of specific steps, but as an invitation. You may say that that name is stupid—well, then, the name is stupid, but: let’s just do something! It’s about doing something together, it’s not about which name we use for it. Thank you.

Lewis Gordon

To begin, to everybody out there, in these difficult times, I want to say to all of you: my condolences for your losses, and also my elation for those of you who continue finding dignity and respect to affirm life. I’d also like to say thank you to Alex for writing this wonderful book, Care, Power, Information. I say that it’s a wonderful book, not simply out of what I agree with in the book, but also because for me, a wonderful book is a book from which I can learn. There are some people who read books simply to find affirmation of themselves, rather than to be challenged, to be engaged, to think, rethink—or, as Alex has also pointed out, the pleasure of simply being in a world of sociality, relation, communication, and the joy of what it is to learn together. This book also beautifully exemplifies the mission of the Independent Social Research Foundation. The book exemplifies a lot of its values. But it also exemplifies something that I’ve been thinking about for going on three decades, and that is the importance of making sure that we don’t, as intellectuals, have ourselves cornered into a situation where we’re simply fodder for those who would like to commodify or degrade thought into the instrumental notion of rationality. In other words, independent research foundations. There are many kinds out there, as we know: there are right-wing think tanks, there are left-wing versions of these. But there are also those who through creating alternatives enable people to raise ideas and questions that need to be raised. And the fact that a book like this could come out connected to this Foundation is a sign that you’re doing something right.

Now, I begin my analysis by saying, this book could also be called A Critique of White-Collar Sociology, which would’ve been a really cool, catchy title. But that might’ve missed the way this book places sociology within a broader context of social science, and places that within an even broader one of disciplinary formation, the sociology of the academy, including its contemporary, neoliberal, political economy of (what is called) ‘growth.’

So, to turn to the key argument: as Alex already alluded, I’m not against the idea of looking at ancient Greek etymologies. My argument is just that the Greek language also has etymological roots in other languages. Even so, for our purposes, because we have adopted a lot of terms from Greek, it makes sense to use the Greek. Well, one could use Mdw Ntr as an example, for instance. It’s interesting when we think about oikos to signify the family, to think about some of the other terms that could have emerged to signify the family. One of the ancient Mdw Ntr terms for family was ‘Xrw’ (pronounced ‘crew’), and even today we could say, “Yo, I got my crew, I bring along my crew,” crew being another way of saying family or extended family. So, there are words that have survived from languages that go back several 1000 years, maybe even 20,000 to 30,000.

But for our purposes, this question of etymology connects to politeia and aretê. With politeia, you can see the obvious connections to politics, the polisAretê is often translated as virtue, but I don’t like that translation, because it’s a lot more complex. The idea of virtue tends to be Christologically mediated and connected to concepts of purity, whereas aretê is connected to notions of excellence. In this context, Alex speaks of the ‘more education’ mantra. But we should stress that this mantra refers to formal education: when people say ‘more education,’ they’re not really talking about education, they’re talking about formal education, for which the prize is ‘certification.’ 

Now, I’ve often lamented that we’re in times of certification instead of education. And in fact, there are many people who are teaching in universities who are frustrated by this, because many of their students just want to know what they could do to get their grade, what they could do to get certified, et cetera. And even though it’s possible that we could achieve both, we could have certification education, we’re clearly living in times where certification is subverting education. If, however, there must be one, it’s pretty clear that education has enabled humanity’s flourishing, not certification. And we know this because certification affords, sadly, greater opportunities for hustlers—and, worse, prize fools—as increased governance from the right attests. And Trump’s name is in the book, but we already know that that’s a well-certified fool, and properly speaking also an idiot—in the classical sense of ‘idiot’ as a person who valorises privatisation at the expense a genuine public sphere and of genuine public life. 

With regard to the economy, Alex rightfully points out that if it’s jobs one wants, and if people want to go into higher education in order to get a good job, the truth, the open secret that’s often being elided, is that what gets you a good job is a healthy economy. A healthy economy is much better at creating good jobs than certifications. The open secret is the ongoing production of scarcity that affords employment for fewer in a downward spiralling of wages. I would add to this that global privatisation versus global public access is part of this problem. What’s strange about all this is that, if we really think about it, we’re not even in the domain of economics anymore. It’s actually all about business. And this is why the etymology of oikos that Alex points to is crucial, because even economics is under threat. Because the concept of business is something different. Business has become a kind of first philosophy. 

If you’re in doubt about this, all you have to do is look at the very movement of what constitutes the centre of (what we call) the university. Now, I’ve already argued that conceptions of learning communities and advanced notions of knowledge precede universities, but if we think from the period from Bologna, all the way to the present, the university, so to speak, had at its centre the seminary, and part of the process of what we call ‘secularisation’ was to push the seminary to the periphery and put at the centre the arts and sciences. Anyone who looks carefully at universities these days will notice that the arts and sciences are being pushed to the side, because something new has popped up. And what has popped up is a new seminary: the business schools. The business schools are becoming the university’s centre. And their correlate is the mega corporations, which function as cathedrals. 

Now white-collar sociology, Alex points out, is Schmittian, and if you scratch Schmitt enough his thought really points to Hobbes’s Leviathan. Now, white-collar academia is Schmittian because it elides politics. And remember, I brought up politeia and linked it with aretê. And a lot of people miss this point, but we already see it in some of the debates, where ‘politics’ is spoken about as a kind of dirty word. Okay, so it elides politics through the structure of friends versus foes (or enemies).

Now, again, for the sake of brevity, I’m just going to highlight some things that I really dig about the book. I love for instance, Alex’s term ‘burea-crasia,’ which is a form of akrasiaAkrasia is often translated as ‘weakness of will,’ and although I don’t think that’s a very accurate translation it does come close. Key here is that it encompasses not only the point where you’re doing something wrong, but also the set of rationalisations that function as excuses for this weakness. This is linked to what, in my own work, I call the market commodification of knowledge. This refers to a way of disempowering the freedom of thinking, the creativity of thought, by ultimately reducing it to the simple question of jobs instead of the calling to the life of the mind, or the intellectual profession, or the life of learning, or pedagogy, et cetera. 

Another wonderful aspect of the book is the beautiful way it gets to the question of democracy, which is linked to how folks look at ideals, regulative ideals, and so on. And on this score, I highly recommend looking at Drucilla Cornell’s book, Defending Ideals, because she points out a distinction between reasonability and notions of formal absolutism, or a deontological notion of ideals.[3] And this is crucial, as Alex’s analysis of republicanism as a necessary condition for democracy brings this home. We’ve seen, of course, that Trumpism is ultimately an attack both on democracy and republicanism, because Trumpism aims to create a category of people who are above law. So, this flouting of anti-republicanism, of being above the law in the face of deeds against democracy, is a double threat. 

Now, the discussion of large corporate actors in the book points out that what is happening is a form of sociological organisation of power that is both anti-government and anti-markets in the plural. This brings us back to a theme I raised earlier, since one thing about business that’s different from economics is that the ethos that is key to business is actually to seek monopolies and monocultures. In other words, the problem with markets in the plural is, frankly, they’re too human. They’re too social, they’re too much connected to liveability. Markets have been around for more than 100,000 years. And in the pluralistic sense of markets, that’s where human beings go to meet other human beings and creatively find a way to live together. They may leave with goods, they may sell some, but that’s not the fundamental purpose of that public gathering that was called markets. However, if we subordinate it to profit over people, subordinate it into the into the kind of algorithmic structure of certain outcomes that ultimately dehumanise people, we can see the logic of what is at work: the monocultural production that business drives at. 

It is this question that leads to the overall triad of the book, because democracy, as Alex points out, requires negotiating relations of power, information, and care. And one of the things he does that connects to his earlier work is he argues that states no longer need to be spatial, and they no longer need to be nations. And once we can understand that, we can understand why we need to deal with global public access in response to global privatisation. 

Here we encounter a problem with late liberalism that Alex explores. One of the things that’s happening with late liberalism is that it gives lip service to meritocracy when, in fact, it is actually waging a war against de facto merit. As Alex says, “in a post-meritocratic society, the meritocratic ideals remain, but the realities are hollowed out.”[4] And he points out that this kind of post-meritocratic society is based on an inheritance model for capital. There’s also an element of solipsism here, which is what gives us the sense that there is nowhere to go, there is no way out. And that is what leads to some of the problems, particularly the ‘bureau-crasia’ that Alex talks about. Key here is the distinction of ‘caring about’ and ‘caring for,’ and it’s a wonderful distinction linked to his analysis of pathosPathos is a complicated notion because in English, the connotations are different, like when we say someone’s ‘pathetic.’ But pathos has different roots, like in sym-pathos, to suffer, or to go through an experience with another, and em-pathos, to take in the other’s experience; this is connected to moving out of the Hobbesian model of being atomistic creatures where the other could be the enemy, in which you’re in conflict, into the communicative practice of em-pathos, where you enter the human or the social world of communication. 

Now, there are all kinds of questions the book raises. It raises for instance, the question of political responsibility, and this is crucial because it brings us to Karl Jaspers’s work in the Schuldfrage (I don’t like the translation into English as ‘the question of German guilt’), where he takes on people like Schmitt, who tries to talk about their exile in the mind. Jaspers didn’t do that; he was a courageous individual who actually took on a lot of these issues in a way that’s similar to what Alex is talking about—and in a totalitarian university environment, moreover. But we could add here that this question runs all the way from Jaspers to Hannah Arendt to Iris Marion Young. And in my own work, I talked a lot about political responsibility as containing a critique of moralism, because moralism individualises issues in a way that centralises them into a Hobbesian framework.

To finally share some comments on the idea of BluesCollarship scholarship, I don’t think there’s anything to be embarrassed about, Alex. First of all, I love its ambiguity. I love its play on words, because it sounds like ‘blue collar,’ but it’s also blues, because to say that term one has to say ‘the blues,’ like blues music, blues poetry, and one of the things we know about the blues is that a blues is fundamentally humanistic and mature. It deals with taking responsibility for the complexity of life. But there’s also another element in this BluesCollarship. Because if you think about blue collar, you know, we could think about a plumber. I had a plumber whom I adored, because when he would come to my house, his goal was not simply to fix what was wrong with the plumbing, but to guide and teach me what to do when things break down. In other words, he came here, and realised that although I’m a professor, I’m also a student. And in that process, I loved learning about plumbing with him. And this is crucial for professors to understand, because to do real research is to be a student. What we are in our research is learning from it and each other. And this element, these echoes of learning communities, is part of what Alex is arguing for. And this requires going through a critique of a former theodicy imposed upon us, not only in terms of the question of privilege, which I won’t develop here, but also in terms of a dialectical critique of a situation that makes us into problems, instead of addressing the problems we face. 

I’ll close by quoting Alex. He writes: “Well, give a person a fish and he’ll eat today, train a person to fish, and they will soon empty the sea of fish and with no other skills will go hungry again, educate a diverse community of people with diverse skills and an understanding of the consequences of their actions, and they will build a sustainable society.”[5]And of course, the question is if they’re willing to do so. But at this point, our task is to put that important question on the table. Thank you.


Footnotes

[1] Alexander I. Stingl, The Digital Coloniality of Power: Epistemic Disobedience in the Social Sciences and the Legitimacy of the Digital Age(London 2016: Lexington Books).

[2] Alexander I. Stingl, Care, Power, Information: For the Love of BluesCollarship in the Age of Digital Culture, Bioeconomy, and (post-)Trumpism(Abingdon 2019: Routledge).

[3] Drucilla Cornell, Defending Ideals: War, Democracy, and Political Struggles (New York 2004: Routledge).

[4] Stingl, Care, Power, Information, 24.

[5] Ibid., 13.


About the Contributors

Alexander I. Stingl is Senior Lecturer in the School of Political Science and Sociology at National University of Ireland, Galway. He gained a PhD in sociology in 2008, after studying social sciences, philosophy, (US-)American studies, and economics between 1997 and 2008 in Erlangen and Nürnberg, Germany. He is an empirical philosopher and sociologist of cognitive cultures and organizations, studying extended, embodied and enacted cognitive cultures and the modes of belonging, participation, and provisioning that they produce. This interest is applied to the following five empirical arenas: (1) bioeconomy and justice, (2) biodigitalization (interaction between non-conscious elements of life and digital objects), (3) biomedicalization and digitalization of childhood, (4) digital health care capital and social inequality, and (5) neurosociology and neurohumanities of gastronomic and sexual appetites. He was also an ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow 2018-2019.

Lewis R. Gordon is an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University. Gordon’s research in philosophy is in Africana philosophy, philosophy of existence, phenomenology, social and political philosophy, philosophy of culture, aesthetics, philosophy of education, and philosophy of science. His philosophy and social theory have been the subjects of many studies in a variety of disciplines. Though he has written on problems of method and disciplinary formation in the human sciences, Gordon has more recently devoted attention to problems in philosophy of physics, especially through a series of ongoing discussions and research projects on cosmology and what he calls multidimensional theory with Stephon Alexander, who teaches physics at Brown University. In addition to theories of social transformation, decolonization, and liberation, Gordon’s research in social and political philosophy also addresses problems of normative political concerns beyond justice. His most recent book is titled Fear of Black Consciousness.