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Despite the imperative for change in a world of persistent inequality, racism, oppression and violence, difficulties arise once we try to bring about a transformation. As scholars, students and activists, we may want to change the world, but we are not separate, looking in, but rather part of the world ourselves. The book demonstrates that we are not in control: with all our academic rigour, we cannot know with certainty why the world is the way it is, or what impact our actions will have. It asks what we are to do, if this is the case, and engages with our desire to seek change. Chapters scrutinise the role of intellectuals, experts and activists in famine aid, the Iraq war, humanitarianism and intervention, traumatic memory, enforced disappearance, and the Grenfell Tower fire, and examine the fantasy of security, contemporary notions of time, space and materiality, and ideas of the human and sentience. Plays and films by Michael Frayn, Chris Marker and Patricio Guzmán are considered, and autobiographical narrative accounts probe the author’s life and background. The book argues that although we might need to traverse the fantasy of certainty and security, we do not need to give up on hope.

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This concluding chapter explores the difference between tragedy and hope: traversing the fantasy that we can know what the world might be with any certainty, and retaining a dream of a different sort, a hope without guarantees. It argues that traversing the fantasy and accepting the inevitability of a lack or an excess does not mean abandoning hope or giving up on dreams altogether. It examines Lauren Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism, where what we desire turns out to be an obstacle to our desire, David Scott’s tragic sensibility, and Les Back’s idea of hope as improvisation.

in Change and the politics of certainty

The chapter juxtaposes quantum cosmology and Lacanian psychoanalysis in a reading of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, and discusses its staging and the controversies it provoked. The play explores the visit of Werner Heisenberg to Neils Bohr in Copenhagen during the Second World War and their discussions about the feasibility of developing nuclear weapons. Did either of them attempt, as experts, to stall the development of nuclear weapons? It enacts three divergent scenarios of the meeting and shows how it is not possible to determine which is the more accurate. Memory is unreliable, and, more importantly, we cannot even know our own thoughts and motivations, let alone those of others. The chapter points to the impossibility of either physical security or intellectual certainty in a world of entanglements.

in Change and the politics of certainty

The chapter provides a semi-autobiographical narrative that considers classism and racism against the background of movement from one class to another and the dislocation that produces. It explores James Martell’s notions of misinterpellation – when someone responds to a call that they know is not for them – and how a refusal of interpellation can function politically as a decolonising move. If, instead of taking on the habits and values to which we are called, we retain our loyalty to the place we are from, whatever that might be, then we have the potential to resist interpellation’s colonising move.

in Change and the politics of certainty
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In this chapter, the slow violence of austerity, classism and racism is contrasted with the swift justice that is meted out to Omega Mwaikambo, a Grenfell resident who took photographs of one of the people who jumped from the tower on the night of the fire. It examines the ‘blackening’ of the community both before and after the fire and their ongoing search for justice and recognition. The chapter assembles traces from the public domain of what happened to Mwaikambo into a narrative account that points to the complexities of the interactions between individuals, the police, and the courts after the fire, and highlights the inadequacy of procedures for the forensic identification of those who died.

in Change and the politics of certainty

The chapter examines the desire to help those we see as victims of crisis or disaster, in particular through what we call humanitarian intervention. It looks at how such actions can perpetuate the very divisions that produce the problem in the first place. Through their reliance on a distinction between the human and the non-human, those politically qualified and those not, humanitarianism shares a secret solidarity with the exclusionary practices of the state and the coloniser. The chapter examines David Reiff’s book A Bed for the Night and considers the dangers of ethics and criteria for a ‘good’ or humanitarian war. There is a tension, the chapter argues, between small actions, face to face, and the desire to do more: to change the world.

in Change and the politics of certainty
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The chapter explores practices of problematisation and expertise. It argues that looking for solutions to problems can reproduce the regime of truth that leads to the so-called problems in the first place. Problematising famine is an example, and what are put forward as ways of ending hunger can turn out to be functioning to reproduce it. Turning to expertise, the chapter examines the case of Dr David Kelly, a scientist who attempted to challenge the manipulation of intelligence to justify the Iraq war. When an ‘expert’ such as Kelly enters the political fray, their voices are sometimes either not heard, or even suppressed. Is there an alternative? The chapter suggests that thinking in terms of a slow listening and an excavation of forgotten subaltern knowledge – and a quiet rebuilding of the world, brick by brick – may help.

in Change and the politics of certainty
Open Access (free)

The chapter examines the argument that we need to traverse the fantasy that we are outside the world and can control and change it, and give up on the search for certainty and security. The chapter proposes that traversing the fantasy of separation and control, and giving up on the security and comfort of imaginary wholeness, is not impossible, as many argue; rather, certainty and security always prove illusory. The chapter notes the thread connecting the author’s earlier work and introduces the way the book will explore these issues through autobiographical narrative accounts, studies of drama and film, and critical analyses of practical political action. It ends by pointing out how abandoning the search for certainty leads to a different pedagogy.

in Change and the politics of certainty
Open Access (free)

This chapter takes the form of a narrative, auto-ethnographic or autobiographical account. In the period between 2002 and 2009, the author had made several visits to New York, and to Manhattan in particular, to the site of Ground Zero, in an attempt to understand the response of New Yorkers to the collapse of the twin towers. She was grappling with the idea of trauma time – the time of openness after an event that throws into doubt what seemed to have been certain – and its political implications. The visit recounted in this chapter took place after a gap of five years, and proved to be a turning point for the author, challenging what she had thought her work was about.

in Change and the politics of certainty
Open Access (free)

The chapter reflects on the work of memory scholars. Inspired by a reading of Chris Marker’s film La Jétee, it explores concepts of time. La Jétee offers contrasting fantasies of the future, whilst also offering glimpses of a time that builds itself around us. The chapter shows that, despite the way Marker’s film complicates notions of a linear temporality and a better future, those notions return to haunt much scholarship on memory. I draw on Eric Santner’s notion of an escape – not from the everyday, but into the everyday – and ask whether such an escape is countenanced in the academic world.

in Change and the politics of certainty