The fifth Economy and Society Summer School this week was an immersion in critique, ecology and theology, and this is a quick summary. Held in the wonderful surroundings of Blackwater Castle, and adorned in splendid sunlight for the duration, my own interests in politics and technology found good company and themes that illuminated my research. Organised by Dr Tom Boland and Dr Ray Griffin, it is becoming an important resource for students of sociology and culture in Ireland and beyond. While for me there are new avenues and new subjects to investigate, it has nevertheless begun to reveal a direction for a more extended research.
Dr Arpad Szakolczai used a brilliant combination of The Rolling Stones (Sympathy for the Devil) and King Crimson (21st Century Schizoid Man) as well as others in pop culture and poetry (REM, Arcade Fire, Allen Ginsberg) in a discussion on problematization. We are focused on problem solving, while the problematization is wrong. In other words, we expend our academic efforts on the problem, while the failing is with the problem itself. This is fairground capitalism, a carnival of tricksters, where we enjoy ourselves in a vacuous and meaningless orgy of consumption, never asking what the candy floss is made of.
Michel Foucault popped up in many of the discussions, in particular in relation to concepts of power and ‘governmentality‘, and while there were speakers from the more contemplative end of the business school spectrum – talking amongst other things about Critical Management Studies (Dr Damien O’Doherty) and the true objectives of education (Dr James Fairhead) – there seemed to be a strong theme of theology running through all of the lectures. Political Theology (Dr Mitchell Dean), Economic Theology (Dr Kieran Keohane) and even Technological Theology (Dr Stefan Schwarkopf) – though it wasn’t explicitly called that – each resonated, in some sense reflecting a shift away from the historical materialist tradition, something of an echo of my concept of bewilderment: science and the enlightenment have failed us in our thinking – perhaps we need to return to God!
The reading groups, along with the side conversations, were every bit as stimulating and rewarding as the lectures and formal sessions, which is as it should be at these events. My own group, led by Katie Holten, Dillon Cohen and Dr Ger Mullally focused on the Anthropocene, art and activism. The participants included Lemka, a PhD Student from Ostrava in the Czech Republic researching post-Apartheid land ownership issues that had echoes of informal economies; David, an Irishman based in Lund, Sweden researching geo-engineering and land reclamation efforts in the Mississippi Delta; and Vaidja, a Croatian student (and punk-band drummer!) based in Dublin researching social engagement with energy infrastructure such as pylons and wind-farms.
The artist Helen O’Leary brought a lot to many discussions, and her talk on her art after the 2008 crash was fascinating (and in parts hilarious!). Dr Tina Kinsella’s juxtaposed talk on some of the feminist responses to the 1916 commemorations was similarly both challenging and thought provoking. The violence of the state against women revealed through assorted scandals such as symphysiotomies, the laundries and abortion laws were highlighted as failings of the newly constituted state. My sense was that the over-arching political misogyny that could have been emphasised more: while the physical violence was appalling, it has been recognised and largely addressed, while the bureaucratic and administrative violence, and the patriarchy that established the circumstances that legitimated that behaviour, substantially remains. Nevertheless, the visceral and powerful work in asserting the feminist response to our national celebrations was an important and hugely valuable contribution.
Prof. Maggie O’Neill shared her insightful research about the experience of immigrant women in London, while Dr Hannah Knox delivered a slightly cynical take on environmental initiatives in the City of Manchester and The Carbon Life of Buildings. Several of the PhD candidates themselves on the final day presented summaries of their work, each of which was impressive.
For me, there were a number of key themes that emerged – technological theology and autistic robots being perhaps the two most important, and I’ll write about them shortly. The anthropocene continues to be of interest – and the comparison between that and postmodernism as structures within which to consider the current moment seems to be an interesting one. The idea of the trickster (Arpad Szakolczai) versus the straight-shooter (which politician do you prefer? Do you really want the truth? Can you handle the truth?) is similarly inviting. Kieran Keohane’s suggestion of kicking over the chessboard as a response to political dissatisfaction is thought-provoking, and though its alignment with permanent liminality (the trickster) / stalemate requires some reading on my part, the immediate resonance of the idea with Trump and Brexit is clear. The importance of art has been growing in my work, and to have had three artists in attendance this week was especially useful and rewarding. Their engagement with the academy (and vice versa) is essential as we figure stuff out.