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From critical theory to technical politics
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The introduction sets out what distinguishes contemporary critical theory, placing Feenberg in context alongside other prominent exponents of the tradition inspired by the Frankfurt School, especially Habermas. It sets Feenberg’s intervention in its social and historical context – the rise of the digital, which, from its inception, has been the locus of a culture of popular participation in technology design. The introduction concludes with a chapter overview of the book.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Graeme Kirkpatrick

The central concept in Feenberg’s theory, technical politics synthesises insights from constructivism in the sociology of technology with Laclau and Mouffe’s ‘post-Marxist’ theory of hegemony and radical democracy. Interpreting the dominant conception of what counts as good technology as the form taken by contemporary hegemony enables Feenberg to read the involvement of social actors in technology design as the principal form of politics in contemporary society. Digital culture, in which non-expert populations routinely refashion gadgets and devices to suit their own purposes, then appears as a hotbed of resistance and activism. Feenberg advances a strategic conception of this activity as moving what he calls the boundary of technique, so as to shift the prevailing conception of what technology can do. The aggregate effect of technical politics in all of its diverse manifestations is a push towards softer, more humane technology, which constitutes a change of civilisational paradigm and facilitates a more harmonious social order that works with rather than against nature. While recognising technical politics as an important conceptual advance, the chapter lodges some reservations concerning the political nature of the theory, which threatens to obscure important sociological questions.

in Technical politics
Open Access (free)
Andrew Feenberg’s critical theory of technology

This is the first monograph devoted to the work of one of the foremost contemporary advocates of critical theory, Andrew Feenberg. It focuses on Feenberg’s central concept, technical politics, and explores his suggestion that democratising technology design is key to a strategic understanding of the process of civilisational change. In this way, it presents Feenberg’s intervention as the necessary bridge between various species of critical constructivism and wider visions of the kind of change that are urgently needed to move human society onto a more sustainable footing. The book describes the development of Feenberg’s thought out of the tradition of Marx and Marcuse, and presents critical analyses of his main ideas: the theory of formal bias, technology’s ambivalence, progressive rationalisation, and the theory of primary and secondary instrumentalisation. Technical politics identifies a limitation of Feenberg’s work associated with his attachment to critique, as the opposite pole to a negative kind of rationality (instrumentalism). It concludes by offering a utopian corrective to the theory that can provide a fuller account of the process of willed technological transformation and of the author’s own idea of a technologically authorised socialism.

Graeme Kirkpatrick

If technology is fashioned to oppress workers and yet will ultimately, in Marx’s phrase, redound to their benefit, then some account is needed of the shaping process itself, in order to see how it might be challenged as part of the transition to a post-capitalist society. This chapter discusses Feenberg’s suggestion that technology is ‘formally biased’ rather than substantively or essentially so. Formally biased designs are those that are shaped by a distinctive, technical intention and which, once placed in social context, promote the interests of specific groups. The chapter interrogates this idea and suggests that it represents an advance on previous critical thinking about the bias of technology, detaching concerns about it from the sweeping and largely unhelpful claims about ‘instrumental reason’ that are to be found in the writings of earlier critical theorists. It suggests that Feenberg has been insufficiently bold in capitalising on the gains of his own approach and recommends reviving the category of substantive bias in a way that will give critical theory access to some of the insights of post-phenomenological studies of technology.

in Technical politics
Bert Ingelaere

The gacaca process was introduced in Rwandan society to deal with the legacy of the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. Empirically informed research points to the ambiguous and ambivalent attitudes of participants regarding testimonial activities, namely the search for the truth. Hence the questions: what does the gacaca experience reveal about this elusive and multidimensional notion called ‘the truth’? And, what does ‘the truth’ as experienced by Rwandans reveal about the nature of the gacaca process? This article aims to answer these questions by identifying and qualifying the different styles of truth at work in the gacaca process, namely the forensic truth, the moral truth, the effectual truth and, the Truth-with-a-Capital-T. The first is a consequence of the design of the court system, the second is derived from the socio-cultural context, the third is a consequence of the decentralised milieu in which the gacaca courts were inserted, the fourth is the result of the overall political context in which the gacaca activities took place. This process of assembling these different styles of truths is conceptualised through the notion of agencement that captures the intricate interplay of agency and structure, contingency and structuration, change and organisation shaping the gacaca process.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, Lasse Heerten, Arua Oko Omaka, Kevin O'Sullivan, and Bertrand Taithe

This roundtable took place on 16 January 2020, at the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war in Biafra. It brought together Marie-Luce Desgrandchamps, Lasse Heerten, Arua Oko Omaka and Kevin O’Sullivan. The roundtable was organised and chaired by Bertrand Taithe, University of Manchester.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Hakim Khaldi

How can we go about our work of saving lives when, in Syria, civilians, the wounded and their families, medical personnel and aid workers are all targets – whether in areas controlled by the government or those held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or various rebel groups with diverging political agendas? Over the course of several field missions, the author of this article, a member of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), sought to decipher the political and military engagements undertaken in different regions of Syria during the war years. He also factored into his analysis the endless flow of data, information and positioning being produced and published over this period, because the war was also fought every day on the internet where the representatives and ideologists of warring groups, human rights organisations, Syrian diaspora organisations and spokespersons of the Syrian central authorities were and still are a permanent presence. Drawing on all these observations and data, the author relates and analyses the emergency relief activities carried out by MSF in Syria, how these activities evolved and the conditions in which choices to intervene and decisions to withdraw were taken.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Editors’ Introduction
Marc Le Pape and Michaël Neuman
Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
Sophie Roborgh

Monitoring of attacks on healthcare has made great strides in the past decade, even if improvement in information has not necessarily resulted in changes on the ground. However, important questions on the knowledge production process continue to be under-explored, including those pertaining to the objectives of monitoring efforts. What does our data actually tell us? Are we missing the (data) point? This paper explores several monitoring mechanisms, and analyses the limitations of the data-gathering exercise, affecting the ability of healthcare workers to share their experiences. By drawing on the experiences of those involved in the medical-humanitarian response in non-government controlled areas in Syria, these dynamics are further brought to the fore, advocating for a more discerning approach in the use of data for such disparate goals as analysis on patterns of attacks (and their implications), advocacy, and accountability.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs
A Congolese Experience
Justine Brabant

Based on the author’s experience as both a journalist and an independent researcher working regularly in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this article examines the many constraints that journalists face in areas of armed conflict. It considers two unusual aspects of journalistic practice observed in the DRC: first, the reporters’ lexical dependence – that is, how the language journalists typically use to describe war is borrowed, sometimes unconsciously, from the war-related rhetoric developed in other fields – and second, journalists’ practical dependence on humanitarian organisations and how this might influence the articles they produce.

Journal of Humanitarian Affairs