"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
By: Matt Martin
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting...
"The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures..."
8th April 2020 / Article
'wi' nowt but dialeck for democracy': Bill Griffiths' Cultural Activism in Seaham
By: Matt Martin
In ‘Our Mongrel Selves’ (1992), Stuart Hall highlights how ‘strengthening of ‘local’ allegiances and identities’ might erode ‘‘centred’ nationalisms of the west European nation state’; this development could enable greater co-operation across national boundaries, but risks ‘re-valorisation of smaller, subordinate nationalisms’ based on these local allegiances. Hall warns against temptations ‘to produce a purified ‘folk’ and to play the highly dangerous game of ‘ethnic cleansing’. His fears are informed by genocide and forced migrations that, while he wrote, were accompanying the break-up of Yugoslavia; however, his caution might also apply more widely:
“Here, the real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities of Europe, which have been made and remade across the tortured and violent history of Europe’s march to modernity, are subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity, by a surreptitious return to ‘tradition’ […] that recasts cultural identity as an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future.”
The dilemma is how to cultivate the positive potential of folk cultures while resisting an essentialised, purist approach that could develop into fascism. One figure who grappled successfully with Hall’s problem is Bill Griffiths, a poet, Old English scholar, archivist, prisoners’ rights activist, classical pianist and sometime Hell’s Angel who stands out among the British avant-garde of the late 20th and early 21st centuries for his folkic methods, developing friendships with peripheral communities and letting their voices inform his writing. Even his earliest poems, written in the 1970s, incorporate idioms from prisoners, biker gangs and Roma. In 1990, Griffiths’ folk interests gained new focus when he moved from London to Seaham, a fishing and mining town in County Durham. He remained based there until he passed away in 2007.
Griffiths shares Hall’s appreciation of ‘real dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ in any culture’s genealogy. This understanding of ‘folk’ is international, interracial and transcultural, remaining open to ongoing change. For Griffiths, ‘folk’ offers not a conservative force, but potential for radical resistance. This essay considers how these values impacted the folk-oriented research that Griffiths initiated in Seaham, including extensive work alongside long-term residents to celebrate North East dialect in the face of hegemonic, centralised Englishness. This all fed into his poetry, which periodically deployed dialect throughout his time in the region. The linguistic texture and poetic stakes show in the opening of the poem ‘On Vane Tempest Provisionally Shut, 23 October, in the Afternoon, 1992’:
While the bishop that tawks to the pollis that bray’d the miners woz marchin’,
wiv a thrang, weel-hair-comb’d mob, tiv address a petishun
til their Lord
whe lives mony a sunny mile frev here,
Satan, wiv a singular bat o’ his gristly neeve
tew’d Vane Tempest sarely, aal but drav it
clean belaw ti the sea. 
Vane Tempest was the last of three collieries around Seaham to shut. ‘Thrang’ means ‘busy’ or ‘crowded’; to ‘bray’ and ‘bat’ mean to ‘hit’ or ‘beat up’; to ‘tew’ is to ‘trouble’; while a ‘neeve’ is a fist.
The poem demonstrates how dialect enables closely worked sound patterns. A series of subtle, often unstressed rhymes and pararhymes runs through the passage – ‘wiv’, ‘tiv’, ‘frev’, ‘wiv’, ‘neeve’, ‘drav’ – that disappear with the standard English ‘with’, ‘to’, ‘from’, ‘with’, ‘fist’, ‘drove’. Likewise, dialect pronunciation and vocabulary introduce puns that accentuate meaning. With ‘pollis’, pronunciation of ‘police’ approaches the word’s Greek root, πόλις (‘polis’) or ‘city’, aligning law enforcement with the poem’s city, either Durham (home of the local bishop, with ‘Lord’ suggesting God) or London (seat of the government whose policies led to the mine’s closure). Either way, the city represents power distanced from local concerns.
Griffiths’ engagement with North East dialect originates at his moment of arrival in Seaham. Shortly afterwards, Griffiths wrote to poet Eric Mottram: ‘I have only been here a week or so, but the difference to the tensions of the London Borough of Hillingdon is already striking, and I look forwards to making many good friends here (when I have learned the language).’ From most people, the parenthetical remark would seem a throwaway quip, but Griffiths meant it. He began researching local dialect, self-publishing books on the subject, as he had long done for his poetry; initially there was an anthology of
dialect texts, Durham and Around: A Dialect Reader (1993), and a lexicon, Durham & Around: Dialect Word List (1994).
It is worth noting that, for Griffiths, issues of language (dialect or otherwise) are intensely political. As early as 1974, he distributed to friends the mimeographed pamphlet Notes on Democracy, where he ruminates on the coercive power of language and outlines a programme for abolishing government itself:
Present govts seem scared to minimize change. Paradox: instability precipitates govt, but govt is limited by its own ambitions and creation from dealing with total reality. Events, populations, resources, are non-stable. So we have no continuous govts but a series of attempts. Each time a govt’s failure or corruption is exposed, and the concept of authority comes under scrutiny, we are told the only solution is an intensification of authority. Consider this in relation to English prison policy in the 1970s.
Griffiths’ politics feel like anarchism, though he prefers the term ‘democracy’, holding that no British government has yet implemented democracy in its true sense. His principles extend to this text’s circulation, with a conversation or negotiation envisaged between writer and reader. He provides a wide margin on each page, as medieval scribes and early modern printers often did so that readers could add marginalia and initiate their own conversations with a text. The pamphlet concludes: ‘You are invited to use the space at the right of each page or any extra paper, to make your own comments and further points upon. You might like to return the annotated copy to Bill Griffiths, 107 Valley Drive, London NW9 9NT.’ Indeed, throughout his career, Griffiths leaves his texts open to continuing transformation; his editor, Alan Halsey, describes how ‘in some cases this involves revision in the commonly accepted sense, in others it is more a case of re-vision – the text reproduced verbatim but in a different page space and/or variant setting’. What would this democratic, anarchistic poetics of constant renegotiation mean when actually enacted in a community, though? A few months after arriving in Seaham, Griffiths wrote A Pocket History of the Soul (1991). This essay describes how political hierarchies derive from a pernicious theology in which the human soul, with authority over the body, is in turn policed by God. Griffiths proposes that hierarchies of religion, nationhood, landlordship, colonialism and capital should all be dismantled, replaced by systems more accountable and responsive to the people they serve. This requires cultivation of skills and heightened participation in local culture by the residents:
Without participation there can be no meaningful ‘democracy’. […] Participation is thus something quite different from token consultation at a General Election, or token opportunity to put objections to some local scheme devised elsewhere by planners at county or country level. It is the opposite of social engineering since no grand theory is involved but only local conditions are taken into account.
Griffiths actually came close to a position where he might have implemented his localism on a larger scale, and though he did not quite succeed, he nevertheless leveraged benefits for his neighbourhood. The inciting incident was an announcement of ‘grandiose plans for dockland redevelopment and new executive housing’, as his friend, historian Bill Lancaster, recollects:
This ‘wash and brush-up’ of Seaham was seen by Bill as the gentrification of his coastal village and a personal threat as the demolition of his home was part of the scheme. Although new to Seaham he organized and led the protests against the plan, which culminated in him standing as candidate for the council. Labour’s hold on Seaham was traditionally watertight and their candidates were usually elected unopposed. He came within a few votes of winning the seat, a shock to Labour who wisely revised the plan and left Bill’s area as it was.
Griffiths saw even the Labour Party, traditional ally of North Eastern mining communities, as too distant from Seaham’s local concerns. Campaigns for regional devolution have long been active in the North East: in the 1970s, poets Colin Simms and Basil Bunting were on the committee of the Campaign for the North; a successor organisation, the Campaign for a Northern Assembly, was active but unsuccessful in 2004’s referendum on devolution for the North East; and recently, Newcastle-based scholar Alex Niven has persuasively argued for regional devolution across England. None of this would satisfy Griffiths, for whom even the Durham County Council’s fiefdom is unwieldy and dehumanising. For him, the town is the level at which local democracy and culture should operate.
Griffiths’ election bid was in May 1995; the following November, Durham County Council published Turning the Tide, a report proposing removal of mining spoil from beaches between Seaham and nearby Easington. In a journal article the following year, Griffiths explained that the plan would accelerate coastal erosion, and questioned whether some spoil should be ‘tipped into Hawthorn Quarry […] making one site (the coast) pretty and another site (the abandoned, renascent quarry) ugly’. He argued that the County Council’s participation in a ‘cult of the restoration of the past is necessarily delusory, unavoidably a fantasy’, betokening a ‘myth of a return to former Aryan glory’. Evoking
white supremacist ideology, Griffiths parallels Hall’s wariness of seeing folk culture as ‘an unfolding essence, moving, apparently without change, from past to future’, as well as the link between this and ‘ethnic cleansing’. Griffiths, unlike the Council, shows willingness to celebrate the unexpected, notionally ‘impure’ materials that history may present.
These conflicts all manifest in the poem about Vane Tempest. The piece was published posthumously; in his computer files, Griffiths grouped it with dialect poems published in 1992–93, but it must postdate these, as it portrays later events. After the description of the mine closure, the narrator receives mail:
[…] a letter cam hoy’d thru me door axin’ if we’d mebbe like
the toon-cooncil abolisht, like? Kas oor views might metter. An’ wad we like the toon-centre jis pulled doon too,
while thor at it.
This refers to the gentrification scheme, and to a referendum that preceded Griffiths’ election bid, concerning the possible abolition of Easington District Council so that its functions could be centralised at County Council level. Despite reservations about the District Council’s track record, Griffiths abhorred this attempt to appropriate power, as did many of his neighbours, to judge by referendum results which saw the District Council retained.
The poem continues; Satan reappears. An arch-Thatcherite, he urges Seaham’s miners to use their redundancy payments to buy shares in a newly privatised Hell – a post-
regeneration vision of Seaham where the Devil will ‘landskip ye aal in kak’. This alludes to the County Council’s scheme to infill nearby Hawthorn Quarry with spoil from the beach – a near-literal landscaping of the area with excrement. Griffiths reflects:
An’ Aa stud in a stiumor. For whe knaws, i’ true, What’s plann’d?
An’ leave us wi’ nowt
But dialeck for democracy.
Buying shares in privatised industries, like the parliamentary phantom of democracy, bestows merely illusory control over the world – Seaham’s future is already ‘plann’d’ and ‘sittled’ between the Council and its corporate allies. ‘Dialeck’ remains the one area where some measure of personal choice can persist in defiance of such forces. Though it, too, is under siege by a hegemonic culture industry enforcing standard English, its potential remains far from trivial. It is in the aftermath of his political and environmental campaigns of 1995 and 1996 that Griffiths’ dialect activities truly took wing. While they may seem indirect actions compared to, say, running for office, in fact it was in dialect research that he was able to bring his political poetics most completely into practice.
Through the mid-1990s, Griffiths continued his dialect research in partnership with his friends Gordon Patrickson and Trevor Charlton. By 1998, there was enough local interest to establish the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, a larger-scale project to catalogue the region’s distinctive vocabulary. This ran along collectivist lines, with Griffiths
taking the title ‘Co-ordinator’ rather than becoming leader per se. In a 2006 interview, recorded during wider research into North Eastern dialects by B.B.C. Radio Newcastle, Griffiths is interviewed alongside the Group’s Secretary Tom Richardson and colleague Nichol Hopper. The conversation gives a valuable insight into their decentred methodology and organisational structure.
The interviewer asks about the trio’s experience of using or hearing local dialect terms. What’s noticeable about Griffiths’ contribution is his diffidence. He happily supplies findings from the group’s research, or etymology from his medieval studies, but lets his friends handle all the questions about personal use of dialect. It is refreshing that, despite his accomplishments, he does not impose himself as spokesman; instead, he behaves as a specialist within a collective whose other members may have expertise more pertinent to certain questions. Even when the interviewer requests an account of the Dialect Group’s methods, Griffiths asks ‘Shall I do that?’ and waits for agreement from the others before proceeding. He then describes opening project to even wider participation by soliciting dialect words from the region’s wider population.
Griffiths: […] in 2001 we put out a questionnaire, quite a simple one, and that got a lot of responses, about 500 came in, and we built on that to build up a dictionary, which is published now. And that’s a mix of words from previous publications and all the words that were sent in. And, ah, people was very keen on it. We get words coming in every week, certainly, if not every day. There’s a lot to collect still. […] One I hadn’t heard before was ‘pagged’ for ‘tired out’.
Richardson: That one’s been in common use for as long as I remember, yeah. But you’ve just added it to the list, haven’t you?
Griffiths: That’s the first I heard it.
Richardson: Yeah, maybe you should get out more, Bill?
Griffiths also built a website with a feature that allowed contributions to be submitted internationally. Dozens of co-authors were thereby welcomed into what eventually became A Dictionary of North East Dialect (2004; second edition 2005).
By collecting input from living speakers in this way, the Dialect Group documented speech that speech that is no mere ‘essence, moving, apparently without change’, but that constantly adjusts to its environment. For example, numerous ‘dialect terms seem to have survived by a process of doubling-up, whereby the unfamiliar term is linked into a self- explanatory compound’ – for example ‘guissy-pig’, where ‘guissy’ itself means ‘pig’. Also, established dialect words have taken on new meanings:
canch (stony ridge) now used for ‘kerb’
charver (young person) now used for ‘club-goer’ duds (clothes) now used for ‘boxer shorts’
dut (bowler hat or cap) now used for ‘small woolly hat’ midden (rubbish tip) now used for ‘dustbin’
skeets (boots) now used for ‘football boots’ sneck (latch) now used for ‘catch on a yale lock’
and from earlier sources: settle (bench) used (1938) for ‘couch’.
Both the Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group, and North East dialect itself, hence epitomise Griffiths’ anarchistic, democratic poetics. Like one of his ‘re-visioned’ poems, or the provisional text of A Note on Democracy, dialect words’ meanings can change when introduced to new contexts, and are subject to renegotiation through conversation. The Group exemplifies democratic participation of the kind imagined in A Pocket History of the Soul, where success depends on locally specific knowledge, and on willingness to concede
the floor when one’s own knowledge is less pertinent to particular circumstances than someone else’s (as does Griffiths in the B.B.C. interview). Most notably, just as Griffiths rejects the idea that the Durham coast ever had a supposedly ‘pure’ past, the Group celebrates (in Hall’s words) the ‘dislocated histories and hybridised ethnicities’ of their region. This manifests not only in the modern dialect’s constant flux, but in the fact that the dialect has never not been in flux. The Dictionary of North East Dialect is painstaking in cataloguing etymologies; not only are there abundant legacies of the Anglian and Norse languages (which Griffiths suspects of having creolised together to a degree during the early medieval period), but loan-words are borrowed from throughout nearby regions and nations, as well as from peripatetic communities like the Roma (the abovementioned ‘charver’ has Romani origins). Griffiths also rejects the racist trope that ‘dialect signals ethnic descent.’ It is impossible to read the Dialect Group’s research and come away, as Hall puts it, ‘subsumed by some essentialist conception of national identity’ for the North East. A good dictionary may be the best antidote to fascism.
Griffiths’ cultural activism in Seaham, particularly around dialect research, remains a testament to the possibility of local resistance against the totalising influence of the nation – either the existing nation-state, or the ‘new nationalisms’ of locality. Likewise, in Griffiths’ poetry, dialect is how a marginalised community voices opposition to the individuals in power, highlighting the latter’s actual helplessness to grant freedom from the structures that bestow this power. In contrast, proposing one’s own structures, as Griffiths and his allies attempted through political, environmental activism, and via linguistic research, may well distribute power more equitably. The poem on Vane Tempest concludes:
Aa had me environmentalist badge alang wi’ me, and howk’d it oot, and confronted him wi’it,
an’ Satan bowked oot an awefu’ pump, and lowped inti the hole
the pit wiz yance,
an’ the sun cam spanglin’ oot, an’ someone somewhere
gov the bishop a thanks
as tho’ any wun man can de owt thru power
ti release ye.
- Stuart Hall, Selected Political Writings: The Great Moving Right Show and Other Essays, ed. by Sally Davison et al. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2017), p.276.
- Hall, p.278.
- Hall, p.278.
- Bill Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3 (1992-96), ed. by Alan Halsey (Hastings: Reality Street, 2016), p.144.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect (Second Edition) (Newcastle upon Tyne: Northumbria University Press, 2005), p.173, p.19, p.9, p.170–171, p.122.
- Griffiths, Letter to Eric Mottram, 9 June 1990; London, King’s College, MOTTRAM 5/100/1–36.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy (London: Pirate Press, 1974), n.p. Typographical errors corrected.
- Griffiths, A Note on Democracy, n.p. Griffiths’ italics.
- Alan Halsey, ‘Pirate Press: A Bibliographical Excursion’, in The Salt Companion to Bill Griffiths, ed. by Will Rowe (Cambridge: Salt, 2007), pp.55–71: p.55.
- Bill Griffiths, A Pocket History of the Soul, n.p.; section 40.
- Lancaster, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Lancaster, Bill, ‘Bill Griffiths Northern Days’, Journal of British and Irish Poetry, 6.1 (March 2014), 13–26: 16.
- Colin Simms, ‘A Glimpse of the “Inly-Working North”: A Meeting of the Campaign for the North’, in Northern Review, 6, Spring 1998, 69–70; Alex Niven, New Model England: How to Build a Radical Culture beyond the Idea of England (London: Repeater Books, 2019).
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham: Turning the Tide or Losing the Beaches?’, in Northern Review, 4, Winter 1996, 100–104: 103.
- Griffiths, ‘Coastal Strategy in Co. Durham’, p.103, p.101.
- Alan Halsey, notes to Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, pp.512–513.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.145.
- Griffiths, A Century of Self-Service?: Aspects of Local Government in the North East with Special Reference to Seaham (Seaham: Amra Imprint, 1995), n.p. (section 1).
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.146.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group: 2005-03-22T12:00:00 (archived website): London, British Library.
- Durham & Tyneside Dialect Group.
- ‘‘Conversation in Seaham about Accent, Dialect and Attitudes to Language’, B.B.C. ‘Voices’ Recordings, 2005: London, British Library, 00:01:07.
- ‘Conversation in Seaham…’, 00:01:09.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, Northern Review, 11, 2002, 41– 51: 49.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.49. Griffiths’ underlining.
- Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.xiii; p.30.
- Griffiths, ‘Words with Edges’, p.44.
- Griffiths, Collected Poems Volume 3, p.147. A ‘pump’ is a fart – Griffiths, A Dictionary of North East Dialect, p.136.
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
11th October 2020 / Article
The Coronavirus Pandemic and its Meanings
By: Michael Rustin
the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic
"the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political..."
The Article has been published in the Revista Brasileira de Psicanálise volume 54 numero 2 , 2020
This article examines the meanings of the Coronavirus Pandemic from a perspective which is both socio-political and psychoanalytic. It suggests that the concept of “combined and uneven development” is relevant to understanding the events which are now taking place. This is because the pandemic has brought together the genesis of a new disease in conditions where the interface between society and the natural world is unregulated, but also where modern forms of communication have enabled an unprecedentedly rapid spread of the disease to take place, across the entire globe. Multiple lines of social division are being exposed by the crisis, as social classes, ethnic populations, nations and regions are differentially harmed. Contrasting priorities, ideological in origin, are being revealed in governments’ response to the virus, in the commitment they give to the preservation of lives compared with other material interests.
In a second part of the article, psycho-social dimensions of the crisis are explored. A psychoanalytical perspective focuses on anxieties as these are generated by the extreme disruption and risks posed by the crisis. It is suggested that these are not only conscious but also unconscious, giving rise to destructive kinds of psychological splitting and denial, and disrupting capacities for reflective decision-making. It is argued that a loss of “containing” mental and social structures is now having damaging effects, and that their repair may be the precondition for constructive resolutions of a general social crisis.___
The Revista is a journal devoted to psychoanalysis, but the explanation of the causes and consequences of the pandemic (from which at the time of writing Brazil seems to be suffering most in all the world) has many aspects which are not best captured by psychoanalytic explanations. Before reflecting on how a psychoanalytic paradigm can engage with this ongoing tragedy, I would like to sketch out an understanding of the pandemic’s wider social and political dimensions. Surprisingly, a theoretical model which does illuminate the current situation is one set out by Leon Trotsky in his explanation of the distinctive attributes of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, in his history of the Russian revolution (1932). This was his “Theory of Combined and Uneven Development.” His argument was that what had made the revolution possible was the presence in what was essentially a backward Russian society of some exceptionally “modern” and developed sectors. Among these were a flourishing industrial capitalism, an organised working class, and an advanced intelligentsia, of whom the Bolsheviks and other communists, socialists and anarchists comprised one element. But what condemned the revolution to extreme difficulties, and ultimately, given the choices that were made, to its deformation and failure, was the fact that this “modern” segment existed within a system which mainly consisted of semi-feudal means of agricultural production (serfdom had only been abolished in 1861) an illiterate peasantry, religiosity and superstition, and an autocratic and brutal form of government by the Tsarist state. This was, even in when it was published in 1932, a prescient analysis of the situation which the revolutionaries had faced, and which led to the eventual defeat of their modernising project. Justin Rosenberg, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, has recently revisited this theoretical model (under the reversed name of Uneven and Combined Development) to explain contemporary geo-political developments.(Rosenberg 2013).
How can this theoretical model of change be useful in explaining a crisis as different from a social revolution as the current global pandemic? The explanation lies in the conjunctions of the effects of some highly advanced and some “early” and backward aspects of social and economic development, which are each relevant to these very different phenomena, a revolution and a pandemic. It seems likely that the virus had its biological origins in food markets in China in which trade in live animals captured from the wild and slaughtered without preventive hygiene at the point of sale, was combined with many other forms of commerce in domestic animals and other foodstuffs. It was possible in those conditions (as with earlier epidemics such as SARS) for a virus to cross species, perhaps with intermediate wild animal vectors such as bats. This is the “pre-modern” element of the situation, one which has probably had many precedents in the mutation of diseases.
Superimposed on this close contact in food markets between the organs and diseases of wild animal species, and their human traders, (which we describe as a pre-modern form of commerce) has been the exceptional speed of transmission of this disease, which has been due to the rapid flow of human beings across the globe that takes place in the highly-modern modern communications environment. This has been described by one sociologist of globalisation as a “space of flows”, a concept developed within the elaboration of the theory of globalisation by many scholars (e.g. Beck 2000, Castells 1998, Giddens 1991, Harvey 1989, Massey 2002 and Urry 2007) in recent decades. Many component features of globalisation were predicted within this model, including the rise of global trade, vast and almost instantaneous flows of finance capital, and the central role of information technology among its generative features., And, as its negative by-products or “feedbacks”, the emergence of “fundamentalist” resistances to modernisation, large flows of refugees, and even global terrorism. It has turned out that another consequence of this situation of combined over- and under-development has been the exposure of the entire world’s population, in the space of just six months, to a virus, Covid 19, which health and social systems have so far mostly been unable to suppress. Prior to Covid 19 there were other viruses, such as HIV, Sars, and Ebola, which have been barely contained, and from which insufficient lessons were learned. Of course plagues have always afflicted humankind, such for example as the “Spanish flu” which killed millions after the First World War. What is singular about this one is the exceptional scope and speed of its transmission. One can say that it is fortunate that it is not even more lethal in its effects than it is.
There are other aspects of “uneven development” relevant to the pandemic, in addition to the one I have mentioned. Its impact is disclosing large differences in the vulnerability of populations to the virus, and in the capacities of social systems to contain it. These differences are in part a function of relative material wealth, as has always been the case with the incidence of epidemics. It is much more feasible for privileged social groups to isolate themselves, or flee to relative seclusion, than it is for the poor, in particular for those living in absolute poverty. (It was common in cities in Renaissance Europe for elites to take refuge in rural retreats in this way.) These differences are also a consequence of the quality and amount of resources invested in public health systems – the availability of doctors, hospital beds, testing and tracing facilities, reliable data etc. But levels of material wealth – average per capita income – are by no means the only significant cause of variance in the harms caused by the virus. It appears that differences in the ideologies and power-structures underlying social systems are also critical in shaping its effects.
It is striking, for example, that European nations have for the most part achieved far better outcomes than are being achieved in the United States in the management of Covid 19. Within Western Europe, the United Kingdom however (excepting Scotland, which has an autonomous public health system) has done conspicuously worse than its European equivalents, after a period when Spain and parts of Italy were overwhelmed by the first impact of the virus. China and other nations in South-East Asia have been substantially more capable in taking action to contain its effects than most other areas of the world. States in India which already had effective public health systems (some of them with histories of Communist regional and city government) have achieved better outcomes than some which did not. Readers of this journal will need no reminding of the disaster now befalling Brazil, where denial of the public health responsibilities of a government, indeed of the reality of the disease itself, is combining with long-standing inequalities of condition to facilitate the epidemic spread of the disease.
It seems that differences in the moral foundations and beliefs within social systems, in particular within the groups that are dominant within them, are decisive in determining societies’ response to the impact of the virus. It is evident that in some societies the value assigned to the protection of lives, all lives, outweighs all other purposes, such that they have been willing to sacrifice or defer other goals in order that this life-preserving goal is first achieved. But in some other societies, or among their ruling elites, this has not been the case. Some societies and their governments appear to be willing to tolerate an incidence of infection and mortality from the virus, conceived presumably as “a fact of nature”, to a degree which others are not. Many societies believe that they can eliminate the virus entirely, or at least for all practical purposes, while others seem prepared to tolerate infection rates in their tens of thousands, in order that economic life can be allowed to continue or be resumed without hindrance. A further explanation of this difference lies in the fact that some societies have the willingness and capacity to offset the economic harms done to individuals when markets are suppressed, by collective measures of compensation, or employment-creation, while for others this is ideologically repugnant. The defining difference between these normative systems seems to lie in the value they assign to individuals’ freedom, at whatever cost its exercise may be to other individuals, compared with the value they assign to the health and well-being of all persons, to which they hold that some individuals’ freedom need on occasion to be subordinated. Such differences in fundamental concepts of “social solidarity” are also revealed in other areas of social life. How else can one explain why the United States tolerates so high an annual loss of life through the use of firearms, compared with similarly rich nations in Europe. The comparison is even worse in regard to death inflicted by police.
These differences in conceptions of social and moral solidarity do not map in any simple way on to a political spectrum of left and right, although to be sure they do sometimes coincide. Some Asian nations which are far from socialist, such as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, have adopted socially-protective positions in their response to the Coronavirus, and of course China, which is ruled by a Communist party, has a substantially capitalist economy.
Many specific kinds of social fracture have emerged in those societies where a commitment to universal protection and well-being, in response to the virus, has been revealed to be lacking. It is striking that the specifically harsh burdens which have been inflicted on some sections of the population were not been anticipated. In the United Kingdom, two specific sub-populations were revealed to have been especially vulnerable to the virus. One of these was the elderly and infirm population of care homes, where the incidence of infection and death has been very high – some estimates say 20,000 out of 45,000 deaths by early July). Another were black and ethnic minority populations, which have also been afflicted in disproportionate numbers. There has to be recourse to explanations in terms of unconscious processes of denial (of social realities and people’s needs) and projection (of vulnerabilities and of attributions of value) adequately to account for these phenomena, which been deeply discriminatory in their effects. How could it be that a National Health Service in Britain would discharge elderly patients from hospitals to residential homes (“to free up beds” for Corona patients) without first testing them for infection, and without ensuring that care homes were shielded from infection? But it did these things, as other public health services (e.g. in Sweden) have also done. These decisions surely arose from an implicit belief that these elderly people were simply of lesser value than who were still young or in mid-life. The difference in the valuation of human beings has long been institutionalised in the separation in England and Wales between the system of “social care” for the elderly and infirm) and the National Health Service, in its funding and organisation. Health is a universal, relatively well-funded public service, “social care” is not.
The fact that the virus impacted so differentially, and so much for the worse, on members of Black and Ethnic Minority (BAME) communities was another source of surprise, in particular as it was realised that this was especially evident among staff within the NHS who were working with Coronavirus patients. There have been many portrayals of the heroic work of National Health Service staff during the crisis, giving rise to a weekly ritual of public applause for them in British streets. In these reports, it has become evident how disproportionate is the number of ethnic minority doctors, nurses and care workers who have been taken ill or died. How could this be? it has been asked, and public inquiries have been set in train to discover the reasons. This situation then intersected with issues of police violence against black people which became world news, following the murder of George Floyd on May 25th in Minneapolis. So the impact of the pandemic on ethnic minorities has become linked to the broader Black Lives Matter campaign, giving rise to an enhanced and intense awareness of ethnic discrimination and inequality (“institutional racism” is one of its descriptions) in Britain, and of course also in the USA. Further racialised crimes have taken place in the UK as this crisis has developed. A probably-racially motivated murder of two young Asian-British women in London park (near to where I live) was followed by the circulation on social media of photographs (“selfies”) of the two dead women taken by two members of the Metropolitan Police, it appears for their own gratification. This event was deeply shocking even to the police authorities, causing almost as much offence as a physical assault.
It has become evident both in the USA, in Britain, and in other countries, that there are white racist groups who have now organised themselves organised in reaction to the movements for ethnic justice and redress. Demonstrations and campaigns against racial injustice are now frequently met with counter-demonstrations, giving rise to significant issues of public order. The conservative nationalist populism of Trump in the United States, and of Bolsanaro in Brazil, have these kinds of violent militancy embedded within their bases of support. The Boris Johnson government in Britain confines itself to the castigation of much protest by ethnic minority groups and their allies (for example the toppling of statues of former slave owners as in Bristol’s harbour) as threats to public order, while acknowledging the offensiveness to minority communities in particular of such commemorations of slavery. But different forms of public unrest are becoming joined up and superimposed on one another, as antipathy to racism, to the police as its perceived instrument, and to the virtual curfews of Covid 19 lockdowns, give rise to turbulent and sometimes violent encounters on the streets and even on some beaches.
A second major theoretical concept from the Marxist tradition which is useful for understanding this global situation is Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “conjuncture”, and its modern development by Stuart Hall (Hall et al. 1978) and other contemporary writers (Hall and Massey 2010). The idea of conjuncture denotes those historically specific circumstances in which different contradictions and conflicts within a social order become unexpectedly juxtaposed to, or superimposed upon, one another, sometimes giving rise to situations of great uncertainty and unpredictability. In such situations the “wars of position” which Gramsci characterised as the normal somewhat static state of relations between conflicting social blocs, can create the conditions for more sudden changes, through ”wars of movement”, from which rapid changes in the distribution of power can result. This may be through the mobilisation of large movements of protest, and through the “joining together” (through what Laclau and Mouffe (1985) described as the discursive construction of “symbolic equivalences” between fields of meaning) of different levels and agencies of social action. The moment of radical protest of 1968 has often been recognised as such a conjuncture, although it was one in which the left’s political hopes of it were defeated. Its cultural outcomes were however a different and more successful story.
The current pandemic amounts to a “conjuncture” in the way in which it is both revealing and juxtaposing varieties of conflict, such for example as the divisions and inequalities being revealed by the crisis, and the contrasting ways of managing or not managing it effectively. From this point of view, compare China’s or Germany’s response to the pandemic with Brazil’s or the USA’s. There are other crucial dimensions of the crisis which need to be added to those already referred to. The most important of these is the economic crisis in which the pandemic is plunging the entire world, which is going to be at least as deep as those of Great Depression of the 1930s and the financial crisis of 2007-8. This crisis will raise the question for governments of how its economic and social effects are to be responded to.
We need to remember in this context that precedents are far from encouraging. The crisis of the 1930s was not resolved, until after several nations had collapsed into Fascism, and after an exceptionally destructive World War which brought those Fascist regimes to an end. It was the war and preparations for it, rather than Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, exemplary as the latter was, which brought the Great Depression to an end. And although, after 2007-8 some measure of economic stability was restored, in good part thanks to the resilience of the Chinese economy, and some moderately positive steps were taken by the Obama government in the USA, little more than a partial stabilisation was achieved. Instead of the inclusive, redistributive economic adjustment of capitalist economies that was required to avert future crises (and which I at the time mistakenly believed governments would institute in their systems’ own interests) there was instead a reversion to “austerity economics”, with a period of contraction and stagnation which saw the rise of radical right wing populism in many nations, not least the USA, the UK, and Brazil. (I believe is was the regression of the global economy which ultimately made the situation of the left-of-centre government of Brazil which followed Lula’s unsustainable). Another crucial factor in all of this is the difficulty which formerly dominant “white” countries, and their elites, are having in adjusting to their relative decline in face of the rise of China and other emerging nations. This decline – which involves a challenge to “white supremacy”, demonstrations of impotence in failed wars and interventions (Afghanistan, Libya, Syria etc.), and inability to improve the living standards even of its own majority populations – is being experienced as traumatic. This situation gives rise to what psychoanalysts might call manic denials of reality and the rejection of rationality and truth itself, in the politics of the United States and those nations shaped by similar “structures of feeling (1).” These repeated flailings of the United States government (withdrawal from global arrangements which formerly served to assure its hegemony, the disruption of commerce and orderly economic relations through an almost indiscriminate use of sanctions, the President’s wild and incontinent utterances) are not the demonstrations of autonomy and strength they purport to be, but are wild responses to the traumas of decline and failure. We could add to this picture a problem which faces the world which is even deeper and more grave than the pandemic, that of climate change. In this situation it would be unwise to be unduly hopeful about the prospects for benign solutions to the problems brought about by the pandemic. However there are some more positive elements to be seen in the situation, where there remain some capacities for rational and constructive action. One might note, for example, that some years ago the problems of global warming and climate change were hardly recognised, while now at least some substantial action to avert their consequences is taking place.
Psychological Aspects of the Crisis
So far in this article, I have mainly discussed the aspects of the current crisis whose explanation lies in the domain of social structures and processes, rather than the spheres which might be of specific interest to psychoanalysts. The reason for this is my belief that the principal explanations of this crisis have to be sought in the dynamics of societies, rather than primarily in the psychological dispositions of individual actors. Individual fears, anxieties and enactments of individuals in situations like the present one, though entirely real are largely shaped by the social environments in which they are formed. It is differences between societies which cause and most fully explain what happens to the individuals within them, rather than it being the case that differences between individuals cause and most fully explain what happens to societies. The dispositions and personalities of figures such as Trump, Bolsanaro, and Johnson, of course have significant consequences for their societies (and for all of us). Nevertheless their attributes and characteristic kinds of action are best understood as the effects of their social milieus rather than as their cause. Freud (and those like Adorno (1951) who developed his analysis of Fascism) saw “leaders” as produced by the socio-psychological needs and collective transferences of their followers, rather than as the primary causes of their behaviours.
Nonetheless, one should ask, what does a psychoanalytic perspective add to our understanding of a crisis and conjuncture of the present kind? Is there a conception of unconscious mental processes, as these function at shared and collective levels of mind, which adds illumination, and needs to be incorporated within the framework of a socio-political analysis? Here is the broader problem of how one might bring about a theoretical integration of psychoanalytical and sociological understandings. which is a topic I have discussed elsewhere (Rustin 2016).
I believe the psychoanalytical concept most valuable in the understanding of the present crisis is Bion’s idea of “containment” (Bion 1975) and what arises from its presence or absence, its strength or its weakness. What the present crisis, with its overlapping and intersecting dimensions, is bringing about is the collapse of many “containing” structures, and the habits of mind and capabilities which depend on them. What is “contained”, in the psychoanalytic view, by containing structures are anxieties, both recognised and unrecognised, and both conscious and unconscious, which are not quite the same thing. What emerges when containment is lacking are many often extreme defences against anxiety, such as splitting and denial, the projection of feared threats and evils into others. and a reversion to paranoid-schizoid and narcissistic states of mind. Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion both believed that the capacity for reflection and thought, and for holding together in the mind the awareness of dispositions both to love and to hate, had their preconditions in a persons’ emotional and mental development. Klein thought of this as the attainment of “depressive” capabilities, or the “depressive position”. (Segal 1973, Rustin and Rustin 2017). Bion thought of it as the presence of a secure relation between “container and contained.” Such experiences of containment take place in the first instance in the earliest months and years of life, in the context of the intimate family. That is, in a relationship between infant and mother, but also between mother and father, father and infant, and between members of a larger family group, including siblings. This is the primary location or incubator of the capacity to form and maintain relationships, which once formed usually becomes extended beyond the sphere of the family into a wider environment of communities and workplaces. And also into establishing relationships, which have both an internal and an external dimension, with other kinds of “objects” which can have symbolic as well as emotional meanings, such as vocations, places, forms of art or science, cultural or social “goods”. Early experiences of containment are the micro-settings within which the capacities for life in society are developed and made possible.
Such micro-settings depend for their existence, however, on wider environmental contexts of security and well-being. In well-functioning societies these can often be taken for granted, to a greater or lesser degree, as the good-enough contexts for lives to be lived and for personal development to take place, and even adventures into the unknown to be embarked on. What happens when grave multiple crises such as those of the present occur is that such surrounding contexts, or conditions of existence, become deeply threatened and disrupted. In relation to the Covid 19 disease itself, we see trust in others, and also in governments, being eroded, as danger and risks to individuals and families grow. We now see many governments becoming concerned that the reserves of public trust and the compliance on which practical means of containing this disease (e.g. quarantines, the use of face-masks, social distancing, vaccination, caution public spaces) depend will be eroded, if people lose confidence in governments’ capabilities and actions. This breakdown of trust is already occurring in many places, and for understandable reasons.
Another level of disruption is occurs when particular social groups (e.g. people of colour), come to believe that the society in which they live, and especially holding power within it, neglects, mistreats and even brutalises them. Additional anxieties arise when when basic material security becomes endangered, for example through economic recession and unemployment. Further kinds of threat are experienced at the level of cultural identity, when it is felt that the symbolic worth of a group’s entire “imagined community” is put in jeopardy, for example through denigration by others, or by the perceived capture of power and privilege by competitors. Arlie Hochschild’’s book, Strangers in their Own Land (2016), showed the origins of the resentment of Republican voters in the American South in their feeling that they had been excluded from the opportunities offered by the “American dream” by the privileging of rival groups in society, located in their minds mainly in northern cities. Fintan O’Toole (2018) has described the emotional core of the Brexit campaign in England as made up of a combination of triumphalist omnipotence and masochistic victimhood and self-pity. Resentment towards “others” who are perceived to be in the ascendant, and the building of animosity towards such groups, are a principal resource of nationalists and populists like Trump for sustaining, often by demagogic means, their base of political support.
The crisis of “combined and uneven development” which I have characterised has both revealed and intensified many kinds of structural inequalities within and between nations. This crisis is giving rise to understandable and indeed justifiable demands for their redress. Some in this situation find themselves taking up highly radical and even utopian positions in asserting what now ought to be done. Some believe that the entire social system should be dismantled and started afresh, difficult as it is to give a feasible meaning to this idea. What we know, however, is that demands made of society from those lacking recognition and power are liable to provoke countervailing demands and reactions from those who currently possess it. Redistributions and adjustments of power and privilege to resolve substantially opposed and competing claims are usually difficult to achieve. Conflicts arising from such struggles can give rise to the risk of organised violence and social breakdown, as we have seen in the past. Strategies for reform and redress of inequalities and injustices need in my view to take account of the probability of such counter-reactions, and to find ways of limiting their severity and destructiveness.
I am inclined to believe that in the present crisis the restoration of a measure of “containing” government, which can begin tackle and resolve immediately critical problems (like those caused by the Corona virus and by global warming) is a pre-requisite for bringing about the many fundamental changes which the general condition of “combined and uneven development” makes desirable and necessary.
However, it should be noted that a concern with states of “containment” is not the only psychoanalytic preoccupation with a social condition which one might have. In an astute observation about Freud’s own writings, the sociologist Zigmunt Bauman (2009) noted that the main anxieties which preoccupy a society were subject to change, even between social epochs. Freud’s main preoccupation, Bauman wrote, was with the excessive repression of desires, and with the constraints imposed in his time on thought and action, especially in the sexual sphere. This was prior to the liberating effects of his own teaching on this cultural climate (2). Excessive repression was also a concern of Melanie Klein, as we see in her focus on the destructive effects on personalities of a persecutory super-ego. But in modern times, in Bauman’s view, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, such that a dominant social anxiety now arises in regard what are perceived to be excessive freedoms of sexual expression and action. Thus we have almost phobic anxieties about the sexual safety of children, and about whether sexual initiatives in interpersonal life are to be experienced as aggressive or abusive, or are merely to be recognised as overtures and approaches without which no sexual relationship could ever come about. (Of course they can be either of these.) In the broader sphere, the additional scope for expression and communication which has been enabled by the expansion of social media seems to justify anxieties, about the diffusion of almost indiscriminate verbal aggression, through “trolling”, of which President Trump’s incessant and often abusive “tweeting” is a conspicuous example. In Britain at this time, intense conflicts are occurring about who has the right to define sexual identities, in particular those characterised as “trans” and involving decisions to change sexual identities as these are assigned at birth. One can believe that at the present time some moves towards the restraint of such unrestrined kinds of social media is desirable, even urgent. It is in this cultural climate that I believe a psychoanalytic focus on the “containing” end of the spectrum between freedom and control, has relevance. Times differ, and what is psychoanalytically indicated as being desirable and appropriate for such times may differ also.
Some of those with power, such as those in Trump’s administration, are seeking to call a halt to the processes of globalisation and its instruments, and thereby to hold on to the advantages they believe they already possess. My view is that the solution to these problems lies not in arresting the processes of globalisation, but rather in making these universal and comprehensive in their extent. This would aim at a form of combined and even rather than uneven development. (I’ve elsewhere imagined this as a “progressive modernisation.” (Rustin 2019) .
This is to imagine a world order in which, for example:
- The goals of good public health and the means to secure this become universal.
- In which the arrest of global warming becomes a common human task.
- In which the problems of unmanageable flows of refugees from impoverished and wartorn countries is dealt with not through constructing barriers and “beautiful walls”, but by enabling problems of poverty and disorder to be addressed in the regions from which refugees come.
- In which goals of economic development are set for the entire world, and not merely for individual nations.
It is only of course competent and well-supported governments, working together with each other, which could bring such a benign process about, in cooperation with other social, economic and cultural actors. It might seem an impossible prospect, though not necessarily so when one sees what Europe accomplished in the years after the Second World War, or indeed what the Chinese have been accomplishing, in regard to poverty and living standards, within their own national boundary.
Of course such goals are not far from those which have been advanced by many international agencies, and by visionary theorists of human development and “flourishing” such as Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993) and which became embodied in the United Nations Human Development Index and Annual Reports.
And after all, are there other alternatives to global catastrophe?
- This term is Raymond Williams’s (1977) and refers to the collective mentalities which are generated in different configurations of relations between social classes.
Ernest Gellner, who had previously (1985) been a severe critic of Freud, wrote later in his work (1995) of the great debt which society owed to Freud, in the effect of his writing in diminishing social repression, and in thereby making possible wider experiences of pleasure and enjoyment.
Adorno, T. (1951/1978) “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda” (1951) reprinted in A. Arato and E. Gebhardt (eds) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Blackwell (1978) pp 118-137.
Bauman, Z. “Freudian Civilisation Revisited: or Whatever happened to the reality principle?” (2009) Journal of Anthropological Psychology No. 21, 2009, Department of Psychology Aarhus University pp 1-9. https://psy.au.dk/fileadmin/Psykologi/Forskning/Forskningsenheder/Journal_of_Anthropological_ Psychology/Volume_21/target.pdf
Beck,U. (2000) What is Globalisation? Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bion, W.R. (1975) Attention and Interpretation. London: Tavistock Publications.
Castells, M. (1998) The Information Age: Economy Society and Culture, Vols 1, 2 and 3. Oxford: Blackwell.
Gellner E. (1985) The Psychoanalytic Movement. London: Paladin.
Gellner, E. (1995) “Freud’s Social Contract”. in Anthropology and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 62-93.
Giddens, A. (1991) The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Hall, S. and Massey, D. (201) “Interpreting the Crisis”. Soundings 44, pp. 57-71.
Hall, S., Critcher, C., Jefferson, T., Roberts, B. (1978/2013) Policing the Crisis: mugging, the state and law & order. Basingstone: Palgrave/Macmillan
Harvey, D. (1989) The Condition of Modernity Oxford: Blackwell
Hochschild, A.R. (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: New Press.
Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.
Massey, D. (2002) ‘Globalisation: what does it mean for geography?’, Geography, 87, 4, 293-6 https://think-global.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/dea/documents/dej_9_2_massey.pdf
Nussbaum, M. and Sen. A. (eds.) (1993) The Quality of Life. Oxford:: Oxford University Press.|O’Toole, F. (2019) Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. London : Apollo.
Rosenberg, Justin (2013) “The ‘Philosophical Premises’ of Uneven and Combined Development.” Review of International Studies, 39 (3). pp. 569-597
Rustin, M.J. (2016) “Sociology and Psychoanalysis”, in A. Elliott and J. Prager (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Psychoanalysis in the Social Sciences and Humanities. London: Routledge. pp 259-277.
Rustin, M.J. (2019) “Is there an alternative to reactionary modernisation?” Soundings 71, pp 116-127.
Rustin, M.E. and M.J. (2017) Reading Klein. London: Routledge.
Segal, H. (1973/1988) Introduction to the Thought of Melanie Klein. London: Karnac Books.
Trotsky,L. (1932/) The Russian Revolution. New York: Simon Schuster..
Urry, J. (2007) Mobilities, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Williams, R. ((1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 128-136.
Michael Rustin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, a Visiting Professor at the Tavistock
Clinic, and an Associate of the British Psychoanalytical Society. He has written widely on interconnections
between psychoanalysis, society and politics, in books including The Good Society and the Inner World (1991)
and Reason and Unreason (2001). His most recent books include Social Defences against Anxiety:
Explorations in a Paradigm (edited with David Armstrong, 2015); Reading Klein (with Margaret Rustin, 2017),
Researching the Unconscious: Principles of Psychoanalytic Method (2019) and New Discoveries in Child
Psychotherapy : Findings from Qualitative Research (edited with Margaret Rustin (2019.) He is an editor of
Soundings, a Journal of Politics and Culture.
31st July 2020 / Video
31st July 2020 / Video
David Lammy and Amina Gichinga on Party Politics and Grassroots Organising
In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed...
In the second of the #ReconstructionWork series, ‘Parliamentary Politics and Grassroots Organising’, David Lammy and Amina Gichinga discussed how best to effect political change through grassroots activism and the parliamentary system, whilst taking into consideration the role of community, culture and theories of change.
Find out more about our #ReconstructionWork project here.
After being elected for the 7th time as the Member of Parliament for Tottenham in December 2019, David Lammy was appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. He became the first black MP to hold the Justice post, either in government or opposition. This appointment concluded a busy year for David, who has fought for justice on behalf of the Windrush Generation, spearheaded the struggle to resist Brexit, campaigned for a humane immigration system, sought to protect vulnerable teenagers from surging knife-crime, re-applied pressure on the Government to compensate the victims of the Grenfell Tower Fire and continued to expose racial bias within the British criminal justice system. These are just some of the issues that David explores in his recently published book, Tribes, an exploration of both the benign and malign effects of our very human need to belong.
Amina Gichinga is a musician, a speaker and a community organiser. Amina became disillusioned with the elitist environment of parliament in her teens and turned to grassroots activism in Newham, where she’s always lived. Wanting to demonstrate a radical approach to how party politics could be done differently, she stood as Take Back the City’s GLA candidate for the City and East Constituency in the 2016 Mayoral & London Assembly elections. Since early 2018 she has worked as an organiser with London Renters Union, organising with local tenants in Newham & Leytonstone to harness their collective power. Amina combined her love of music with her dedication to social justice and founded Nawi Collective, an all-black women and non-binary femmes choir, in 2017.
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
8th April 2020 / Article
Offline Responses to an Online World
By: Priya Sharma
what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?
"what transformative elements of this world exist for its users?"
This paper focuses on the current theme of offline response that is the result of research conducted on digital identity work and labour amongst queer and female British South Asian Instagrammers. In this context, online space is defined as internet-based social media platforms and offline space refers to the local diaspora community or family in which the participant is embedded.
This quote from Christine Hine speaks to the complex ways in which we navigate our way through these online and offline spaces:
‘ The internet has brought us together in myriad new ways, but still much of the interpretive work that goes on to embed it into people’s lives is not apparent on the Internet itself, as its users weave together highly individualized and complex patterns of meaning out of these publicly observable threads of interaction.’
(Ethnography for the Internet: Embedded, Embodied and Everyday)
The image above is a screenshot taken from Instagram. It is a doctored image of Gandhi as the devil posted up to an account called SouthAsia Art. This image, along with others on this account are the result of an Indo-Fijian artist’s residency, where she has researched the plight of female South Asian indentured labourers in Fiji and Gandhi’s complicity with the British empire in deciding their fate. The offline conversations and activities that have resulted in this image go some way in highlighting these complex
patterns of meaning that Hine is talking about that aren’t obviously apparent on the internet alone. It would be interesting to gain an insight into the activity being done currently in Fiji around this forgotten history and the meetings and conversations that are taking place amongst the South Asian diaspora there. And it is the uncovering of a working-class female South Asian history, being done by female scholars from the diaspora that is at the heart of the activity behind this image. In this same vein, this research presents an opportunity for young British South Asians who exist outside of male, cis-gendered heteronormativity to reflect on and speak for themselves, about themselves and others who inhabit this online space. Just as the diaspora is recovering its histories, so too should it be allowed to articulate its present.
The decision to analyse participant responses was taken as opposed to analyses of digital content that users put up on their Instagram profiles as a different truth (and albeit one that is rarely researched) was found in participant’s reflections of this digital world. We know that we are beyond the point of the early days of tech utopia and simple empowerment online because the real-world systemic inequalities are perpetuated in the digital world. But what transformative elements of this world exist for its users? What are the limitations and barriers? How could participants explain, in their own words what this world represented to them? And in turn, what would these responses reveal about the wider South Asian diaspora in Britain today?
Thirty years after Stuart Hall’s discussion of ‘new ethnicities’, this paper is an attempt to try and think through the ways in which young female and queer British diaspora communities articulate themselves but also reflect on their digital selves and the issues that are confronted through their responses. Drawing on anonymised interviews conducted with 34 Instagrammers, this study attempts to make visible things that their digital content usually renders invisible.
Instagram is a photo and video sharing smartphone app launched in 2010 that enables an account holder to share content with followers who have chosen to subscribe to their account and vice versa. The particular sphere of Instagram the participants inhabit will be referred to as the South Asian Digital Diaspora space (the SADD space) throughout this paper. It is defined as a networked space that privileges articulations of gender, sexuality and culture through the lens of South Asian diaspora communities.
Many themes and issues were covered by participants in the interviews, but what stood out most were the anxieties and connections that lie behind the accounts within the SADD space. Here are some of the themes that really came to the fore and the ones that will be discussed in this paper:
- The private and public account
- Respectability politics
- Digital space invasion
- Racial neoliberalism
The private and public account
The private and public account theme was a prominent one amongst participants: this is where a user can choose to either make an Instagram account private so when someone clicks onto the account, they can’t see the content and have to put in a request to follow it. It is up to the account holder to grant them access to the content. A public account is open so anyone can view content when they click on the account. One participant talks about having a private account that ends up being infiltrated by what they term a ‘lurking profile’:
“So it’s typically a profile with not many posts at all, they follow more people than they are followed by and there’s often no profile picture and they just lurk and watch people’s stories. One of my friends alerted me coz people were making really homophobic comments about me in WhatsApp chats and I was like ‘oh damn’ I have to be careful. I blocked a lot of people after this and I thought it was a safe space because it was private but apparently it wasn’t. You don’t know whose watching, especially when you’re wanting to further your career and a lot of your art entails themes of queerness, there’s this sense of impending danger that you have lurking somewhere at the back of your mind. I think in one way, while Instagram is good in getting stuff out there, you also expose yourself which is difficult to navigate because you don’t know who’s watching.”
Another participant recently made her profile private after her comments on a photograph of a prominent Muslim Instagrammer sparked some outrage:
“There was an argument going on in somebody else’s comment section, as always! She [this famous instagrammer] wears her headscarf in quite a unique way so you can see a little bit of her hair. Then someone commented, a guy, who clearly didn’t know what he was on about saying ‘this is what fame does to you, you forget your morals, you forget your principles, you don’t wear the hijab correctly’ […] I said ‘that’s funny coming from you coz you’re a male and you don’t know the struggles of covering your hair’ […] he got angry at me and said ‘you don’t wear your hijab properly either’ and at that moment I realised for him to say that he’s seen my pictures on my Instagram […] it made me feel something, unsafe I think […] he’s looking at my photos and using that against me.”
Through these responses, we begin to understand how the public and private functions of the SADD space operate. Trying to articulate the intersections of your identity or defending another person’s can put you at risk. For the first participant, it was an ex-school friend who had created the ‘lurking profile’ – this friend had connections to the participant’s family and so there was risk of the offline world becoming an unsafe space for them. For the second participant, before this negative interaction, her profile had been public for a very long time meaning that the SADD space was where she felt safe. After this interaction, this space became unsafe.
To counter the public profile, private ones are made so there is a secret online life being lived alongside the offline life. This doubling of life isn’t new to those that have grown up in strict, conservative South Asian families, the difference is the detail that goes into this digital life and the constancy of it (you’re always carrying it around with you on your phone), which can create real anxiety for participants. The societal risks that exist within the offline and online South Asian community at large creates a barrier to self-representation for the participants, especially when it comes to issues around gender and sexuality.
This barrier to self-representation, even when challenged, can remain a barrier, the result being the self-censoring of content. Participants are held up to the politics of respectability in the SAAD space. This participant says:
“I know there’s been cases where my mum’s been like ‘take that down now’ because I’m too exposed, and my mum is very liberal. She’s like ‘your projecting the wrong image out there’ and basically compared me to being a sex worker”
The images we would see on this participant’s profile isn’t how she truly wants to be seen, but how her family will allow her to be seen. What this remark makes visible are these private conversations between parents and offspring that happen behind closed doors and influence the images in the SADD space. Even though this participant describes her mum as very liberal, she tells her daughter that she is projecting the ‘wrong’ image by posting up pictures of herself in what she considers provocative clothing, equating the showing of flesh to sex work, which is very problematic for reasons we don’t have time for today . This participant’s notion of parental liberalism, or her mother’s liberalism, permits her to do things, like wear a short skirt and drink as long as it is done away from the community, that it remains invisible. And that no trace of it exists in the SADD space.
This idea of the ‘wrong image’ is echoed in this participant’s answer:
“I’m not going to say I censor it, but I can very easily choose certain issues that I know spark some kind of outrage within my parents’ communities – I would avoid those deliberately. I’m not gonna talk about my personal life so there’s nothing essentially on my profile that would make people think ‘oh my god, look what your daughter’s doing’. What am I doing? I’m just posting photos, so there’s not really anything wrong that I’m doing.”
This participant subconsciously conflates her personal life with doing something wrong – the personal: i.e: the emotional, the intimate is made to feel wrong in the SADD space, so is best kept invisible.
The SADD space is a space of self-representation that can end up being externally policed by those outside of it, especially when it comes down to articulations of sexuality, gender and lifestyle. One way of making the SADD space safe is to make it private, but even then, as demonstrated earlier, it can be infiltrated. So how can participants navigate these complex online/offline relations with some ease?
Digital space invasion
One participant said that the SADD space gave her the confidence to be more vocal about who is she within her local community:
“I think for the confidence levels and the confidence to be outspoken and political and to kind of take that change and put it back into the community as well. I’ve been able to, rather than living that entirely online, I have been able to take that back out and because I’ve shown that side of myself publicly on the internet, now it’s allowed me to show that person to the people I see in the community who’ve seen it on Instagram.”
There is an awareness that this approach comes with risk of confrontation or worse, but it demonstrates one way that these anxieties can be relieved. This approach comes down to how safe somebody already feels within their offline community.
The popularity of the SADD space goes beyond articulations of self to demonstrate the ways in which participants circumvent the traditional cultural industries, making them space invaders of industries that have historically rejected or compromised the work of British South Asian creatives, as Nirmal Puwar writes:
“As we witness a number of policy initiatives under the banner of ‘diversity’, the ‘guarded’ tolerance in the desire for difference carries in the unspoken small print of assimilation a ‘drive for sameness’. Through these processes the kind of questions that are asked as well as the voices that are amenable to being heard within the regular channels of the art world, academia, or other fields of work, can become seriously stunted.” (Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place, 2004)
This digital invasion of the cultural industries has forcibly opened up a space of difference without compromise and industry gatekeeping. One participant runs her business entirely through the SADD space and has relied on it heavily to gain recognition and get work, promoting herself specifically as a South Asian tattoo artist:
“I used my Instagram as my portfolio when I was looking for tattooing apprenticeships, and I was lucky enough to have found the apprenticeships I had because of Instagram. I used to be an apprentice at the studio I now own and they had offered me a job there because they saw and liked my work on Instagram.”
Participants have stated that they have gotten art and writing commissions, exhibitions, collaborations and job opportunities off the back of the SADD space and they also make a point of supporting each other through it:
“I’ve been able to connect with some really lovely people locally because of it and have been able to show up to events that were exclusively advertised on IG and learn about a lot of underrated hyperlocal culture that I felt needed visibility as well.”
Staying culturally true to yourself, connecting with others like you, not giving in to dominant whiteness and still financially succeeding by way of bypassing traditional gatekeepers is undeniably empowering for members of the SADD space.
However, it could be argued that this space, as a social media platform could be described as a cultural industry, whereby the processes of cultural production of British South
Asian identity are not without their problems. Under the racial neoliberal address, there is a call for a shift from the politics of representation to a politics of production (Anamik Saha, Race and the Cultural Industries, 2018), the constraints of which appear largely invisible within the SADD space. On a platform like Instagram, you can feel like you are in control of the processes of production behind your self-representation without having to question it further. This is a platform that has approached participants to sell products, that exists on an economy of likes and sponsorship deals and I think to not interrogate these processes of capitalist production further is to do a disservice to Stuart Hall’s conception of a politics of representation – we mustn’t forget the political. When we do, we begin to see the essentialising effects of the neoliberal processes of production, churning out what we believe to be our own truths, as one participant puts it:
“There’s this South Asian monolithic nation project happening out there which I think is something that I’m quite cautious about because I think that growing up in this country, a lot of South Asians, you’re growing up with loads of people from diasporas and to self – exoticise yourself sometimes because it does go to that at points, there is a real risk because with this collective consciousness which is coming about on Instagram, there is a convergence of more niche people into this bigger aesthetic in order to get recognition to be a part of that project.”
The convergence of South Asian religious and ethnic identities within the SADD space (usually Hindu/Punjabi and middle-class), removes the potential for a radical politics of representation, but this essentialism is not lost on some participants who inhabit the SADD space, which is promising.
Conversely, these processes of production are significant to users because the aforementioned religious and patriarchal barriers present much more of an oppression compared to that of capitalist neoliberal processes of production, which offer a type of safety and freedom to allow participants to be honest without major consequence. As recognised by some participants, these neoliberal forms of self-representation do not offer a long-term solution to systemic oppressions, but it also cannot be denied that the SADD space can be an affirming space for many of its users; this positive response from one participant is a reminder that ultimately we are all searching for ways to belong:
“It makes so much difference to know there are also other south Asians living alternative lifestyles, helping and supporting one another. Giving visibility to and sharing content from these accounts is important to me because I’m trying to be the person I needed when I was younger.”