The work of Jane Bennet

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an Intern at the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research (BISR).

The BISR recently hosted a two-day event about the work of Jane Bennet (Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore) organised by Lisa Baraitser (Birkbeck, University of London) and Michael O’Rourke (Independent Colleges, Dublin).

The workshop held on 5 October 2013 around the work of Jane Bennet, was filled with phrases like “object oriented ontology” (OOO for short), “new materialisms”, and “speculative realism”. As a person who has studied law, a discipline obsessed with language and meaning, and whose theoretical approaches in his PhD involves thinking about language and forms of life, all of this was new to me. The idea that material objects could be alive or actively participate in everyday life, seemed like a distant idea.

Yet this is precisely what Jane Bennet’s work argues: that matter has vitality. Maybe the first step is to move away from thinking about language as the threshold of human life. Humans always act within a larger assemblage of other (non-human) bodies. But more than that, things and objects seem to act upon us in a number of ways, and matter acquires a kind of life-force of its own. Actions are not only constituted through forms of human sociality, but by the material bodies in the assemblages that we are a part of.

The workshop took Jane Bennet’s work in several directions. Lisa Baraister’s presentation explored the ways in which mothers experienced the different objects that they encountered in a city: taking their baby buggies through the gates in Underground stations, or navigating busy sidewalks. While some navigated the city with ease, others struggled to find their way in the narrow pathways that the city afforded. In her narrative, the city emerges as a living sieve, which hoarded the various objects that it wanted to keep.

Nigel Clark’s presentation was on the question of time in geography. Geographers and geologists had usually understood rocks, and minerals and the other things that go to make up the earth as usually being inert, unless there was some event like an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. He wondered what would happen if we began to see that minerals and rocks are do not merely sit inertly in the earth, but act over many millennia. Another presentation titled “JB” by Michael O’Rourke explored the theoretical linkages between Judith Butler and Jane Bennet (available here).

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Racial integration in US cities

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

How racially integrated are US cities today? Are they more integrated today than previously? An insightful presentation at Birkbeck by John Logan, Professor of Sociology at Brown University, paints a complex picture.

Using New York City as an example, Prof Logan argued that cities in the United States have always been segregated to some extent. While in the early 1900s only 1% of the city was African-American, other recent immigrant communities such as Russian Jews and Italians were confined to specific parts of the city. By the 1920s, poverty and the persistence of Jim Crow laws in the southern US forced many African-Americans to seek better lives in urban centres in the north. This “great migration” of the 1920s saw the creation of “black ghettoes” such as Harlem in New York city.

In the 1920s, New York City’s index of dissimilarity for African-Americans was about 0.7 (0 being the most integrated, 1 being the most segregated). This index hovered between 0.8 and 0.9 for most of the 20th century, and this level of segregation of the African-American community continues today. The civil rights era and the passage of fair housing laws did little to change this level of segregation.

Prof Logan then compared this level of segregation of African-Americans with the Italian and Russian Jewish communities. In the early 1900s both these communities lived in specific areas – Italians in Greenwich Village and Russian Jews in Lower East Side. Many of the African-Americans who migrated to New York City were from different social classes – while some did blue collar jobs, others could be identified as middle class. Italians, by and large, performed manual labour and many dropped out of school. Similarly, the Russian Jewish population mostly did working class jobs, and came to be closely associated with the garment industry. Both these communities had higher indices of dissimilarity than African-Americans in the 1920s but the indices for both communities fell rapidly to about 0.3 by the 1990s. Prof Logan argued that both these communities were able to integrate rapidly by virtue of gradually being identified as “white”.

Moving on to segregation today and its relation to class, Prof Logan looked at the social and racial make up of neighbourhoods today. While it’s assumed that African-American people lived in African-American neighbourhoods because they were poor, what Prof Logan’s data shows is that racial segregation occurred regardless of class. Meaning that poor white people lived amongst other poor white people and poor African-American people lived in poor African-American neighbourhoods. Comparing the data across classes presents an even more complicated picture: the average poor white neighbourhood had less poor people than the average rich African-American neighbourhoods.

Switching to segregation in education, Prof Logan’s data showed that schools were even more segregated than neighbourhoods. The majority of African-American children went to African-American majority schools while the average white student went to white majority schools.

According to Prof Logan, the traditional model of viewing changes in racial composition of neighbourhoods has been the “Invasion and Succession” model: African-Americans enter a neighbourhood resulting in an exodus of white people (white flight) until there is a majority African-American population. Recent demographic data about immigration of Asian and Hispanic population reveals a different pattern. It was found that in neighbourhoods that start off as all white and into which Asian and Hispanic populations begin to settle, and then into which the African-American population migrated, there was no white flight. These neighbourhoods resulted in what was referred to as “global neighbourhoods” in urban areas. According to Prof Logan this is having an impact on the meaning of race for white populations in the United States today.

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One Mile Away

This post was contributed by Emma Pearson, a MSc Politics student at Birkbeck. She also writes for dailyinfo.co.uk and blogs at emmalouisepears.wordpress.com.

The first event leading up to Birkbeck’s Surplus: Waste, Wealth, Excess forum in June was a screening of One Mile Away by Penny Woolcock, a documentary at once fascinating, subtly flawed, and an engaging trigger for debate.

It traces the fledgling peace efforts of two warring Birmingham gangs, following in particular two young visionaries for peace, Dylan of the Burger gang and Shabba from the Johnsons. They work tirelessly to recruit fellow gang members and elders to their cause, warn the younger generation away from violence, and soliloquise over the graves of its victims. All this is interspersed with rap performed by their recruits – a tell-tale sign of the theatricality underlying the facts.

Anthony Gunter, lecturer in criminology at UEL and author of “Growing Up Bad: Road Culture, Badness and Black Youth Transitions in an East London Neighbourhood”, led the discussion after the film. It is, he argued, very easy to categorise inner-city violence under ‘gang warfare’ and forget about it. It’s nicely self-contained, outsiders need not trouble themselves with any deeper causality, and David Cameron can label the 2011 riots as “criminality, pure and simple” without too much responsibility coming his way. For the media’s part, gangs are a well-understood drama. It’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, tribal war. There is no need for context, and One Mile Away gives very little.

But context should be everything, because the situation facing many young black males in Britiain’s cities today is dire. Lack of education, meagre employment prospects and a broken down relationship with the police mean that many feel – and are treated – like surplus population. The ‘road culture’, far from its roots in the Caribbean drive towards social being and outdoor living in the cradle of the community, has become a thing of chaos – something aptly illustrated by Woolcock’s film. Shootings and stabbings abound in the silences between camera takes, but no one really knows where, or why, or even who. The one time when details are given, it turns out the dispute was about money, not gang membership at all.

So on the part of the young men in the film, perhaps the gang narrative – the regurgitated language of the press – is at least partly a means to impose order. Perhaps the film and the ‘peace process’ were simply something to do, a way to have some purpose when the system seems to deny them everything else. The fact that all the young men were performers, and Dylan possessed of powerful charisma, may indicate that we shouldn’t treat this documentary as an accurate representation of real life.

It is a performance, however, that still has a lot to tell us about the state of Britain today. Because even if this absorbing film is propelled chiefly by the enactment of myth, its flaws as a real-life documentary point us towards the truth of the chaotic situation. We should not use the ‘gang’ label to distance ourselves from inner city violence. Far from being “criminality, pure and simple”, we are all a part of the complex system leading to it.

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