Refracted Input

Clare O’Farrell’s blog on books, TV, films, Michel Foucault, universities etc. etc.

I have found that towards the end of his career, Foucault offered particularly clear and useful definitions of a number of concepts. I should add the caveat perhaps, that Foucault often redefined and refined concepts at different points in his writings. I like this passage which defines the differences in the way philosophical and spiritual systems approach the truth:

We will call, if you like, “philosophy” the form of thought that asks, not of course what is true and what is false, but what determines that there is and can be truth and falsehood and whether or not we can separate the true and the false. We will call “philosophy” the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth and which attempts to determine the conditions and limits of the subject’s access to the truth. If we call this “philosophy,” then I think we could call “spirituality” the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth. We will call “spirituality” then the set of these researches, practices, and experiences, which may be purifications, ascetic exercises, renunciations, conversions of looking, modifications of existence, etc., which are, not for knowledge but for the subject, for the subject’s very being, the price to be paid for access to the truth.
Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981–1982, ed. Frédéric Gros, trans. Graham Burchell, English series ed. Arnold I. Davidson (New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p.15

An interesting reflection by Rob Kitchen on the relationship between academic and fiction writing and storytelling on the Transforming Society blog. He says:

The usual approach to writing an academic article or book is to produce a factual, discursive narrative that weaves together theories, observations and findings, contextualising the contentions made with respect to the existing literature.

[…]

In contrast, storytelling is inherently a more engaging and accessible register for communicating ideas and providing a critical lens to reflect society.

[…]

For example, science fiction uses extrapolation and speculation to explore possible futures given present trends. In particular, science fiction employs the tactics of estrangement (pushing a reader outside of what they comfortably know) and defamiliarisation (making the familiar strange) as a way of creating a distancing mirror and prompting critical reflection on society, now and to come. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a long history of academics drawing on the imaginaries of science fiction in their analyses, and also science fiction writers using academic ideas in their stories – a relationship examined in the book Lost in space I co-edited with James Kneale.

Elsewhere on this blog, I have referred to my interest in television and film science fiction as a different way of conducting philosophical reflection. Much current science fiction is highly disappointing on this score – the mainstreaming of the genre has led to the proliferation of films and series which simply don’t include that essential reflective element. But exceptions to this new rule remain: I have just finished watching what is probably the best recent entry in my own personal pantheon of philosophical science fiction, namely the 2015-2018 television series, 12 Monkeys.

This time travel series begins with a pandemic in 2017, and watching the series during the current global health crisis creates a complexity of rich resonances that the creators could not have foreseen. The first season is a little hard to push through, but the series really takes off from season 2 onwards, a perception widely shared in the fan and critical reception. It is to the credit of the Syfy channel that it allowed the series to get off the ground without simply ruthlessly cancelling it. This incidentally has been the fate of a number of promising science fiction series. One that particularly leaps to mind, for me at least, is the 2002 Canadian series Odyssey 5, another time travel series. It seems this was cancelled, in spite of good audience ratings, when a new executive who had little interest in science fiction took over the production company .

12 Monkeys reflects on the nature of time, choice, fate, family vs the broader social contract, friendship, the paradoxical nature of action as well as other concepts. One particularly striking feature of the series is how well it is plotted and organised. This is a real rarity when it comes to television series which often lurch from one ad hoc storyline to the next, most often due to a whole range of external production factors, including subsets of fan reception. This generally has disastrous consequences for consistent and innovative story, characterisation and character development.

Several rave reviews have been written about the wonderful – and complex – ending to the series which as one reviewer says, while tying things up in a very satisfying manner, still allows further room for reflection and debate.

The other recent TV series I found of philosophical interest was the more uneven 2011-2016 entry Person of Interest. This series dealt with ideas around surveillance and power the complexities of our relationships with the digital world- Foucauldian resonances of course!

Quick note for Australian readers: 12 Monkeys is currently available to stream for free on SBS on demand.

Just posting this here for future reference. The feeling of place has been a subject of long fascination for me and I particularly like the situationist notion of drifting through and paying attention to the subtle shifts in feeling of urban and other landscapes – the notion of dérive. Here’s Guy Debord on the subject:

The sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places — these phenomena all seem to be neglected. In any case they are never envisaged as depending on causes that can be uncovered by careful analysis and turned to account. People are quite aware that some neighborhoods are gloomy and others pleasant. But they generally simply assume that elegant streets cause a feeling of satisfaction and that poor streets are depressing, and let it go at that. In fact, the variety of possible combinations of ambiances, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke. The slightest demystified investigation reveals that the qualitatively or quantitatively different influences of diverse urban decors cannot be determined solely on the basis of the historical period or architectural style, much less on the basis of housing conditions.
Guy Debord, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, Les Lèvres Nues #6 (September 1955). Translated by Ken Knabb

Debord, Guy. Introduction to a critique of urban geography. Praxis (e) press, 2008.

I have just come across this fascinating journal which published its first issue in 2015. Shades of Jorge Luis Borges… You can read some interesting findings on the effects of lockdown in the May 2020 issue

Journal of Imaginary Research

A key aim of our journal/zine is to encourage academic colleagues to embrace writing simply for enjoyment, as an act of care, or as a reflective act. We also hope that reading and writing our imagined works, will bring an enjoyable diversion into your work lives.
[…]

We publish imaginary research abstracts, and all our volumes are available as free downloads here. What do we mean imaginary research abstracts? We mean short works of fiction, that take a format that is familiar to us as researchers and academics. An abstract is the summary of an academic paper, that gives us a succinct overview of the research that has been done, and the new outcomes or ideas that the research has generated. We publish imagined research abstracts as works of fiction firstly because writing for enjoyment is a good thing to encourage. We spend a lot of time trying to reduce our anxiety about writing, and so writing imaginatively is a good way to reshape our relationship with writing into something creative and enjoyable. Secondly, writing fiction in a familiar format, helps us to reflect on how we can creatively communicate our other research projects, and how we can find the joy of creativity within the grind of productivity. Creativity is a property of all writers and the privilege of all researchers. It allows us to dream and hope. The imaginary abstracts we have published in Volumes 1-5 and our summer 2020 Special Issue were written by real academic staff, research staff, and research students.

This looks like a really interesting work…

Federico Italiano (ed.), The Dark Side of Translation – Routledge, 2020

We tend to consider translation as something good, virtuous and bright, but it can also function as an instrument of concealment, silencing and misdirection—as something that darkens and obscures. Propaganda, misinformation, narratives of trauma and imagery of the enemy—to mention just a few of the negative phenomena that shape our lives—show patterns of communication in which translation either functions as a weapon or constitutes a space of conflict. But what does this dark side of translation look like? How does it work?

Ground-breaking in its theoretical conception and pioneering in its thematic approach, this book unites international scholars from a range of disciplines including philosophy, translation studies, literary theory, ecocriticism, game studies, history and political science. With examples that illustrate complex theoretical and philosophical issues, this book also has a major focus on the translational dimension of ecology and climate change.

Transdisciplinary and topical, this book is key reading for researchers, scholars and advanced students of translation studies, literature and related areas.

Table of Contents
Contributors

Acknowledgments

The dark side: an introduction
Federico Italiano

Part I: (Post-)colonial translations and hegemonic practices

1. Beyond a taste for the dark side: the apparatus of area and the modern regime of translation under Pax Americana
Jon Solomon

2. The Language of the hegemon: migration and the violence of translation
Monika Mokre

Part II: The Holocaust and the translator’s ambiguity

3. Primo Levi’s grey zone and the ambiguity of translation in Nazi concentration camps
Michaela Wolf

4. Translating the Uncanny, Uncanny Translation
Christoph Leitgeb

Part III: The translation of climate change discourses and the ecology of knowledge

5. Shady dealings: translation, climate and knowledge
Michael Cronin

6. Climate change and the dark side of translating science into popular culture
Alexa Weik von Mossner

7. Darkness, obscurity, opacity: ecology in translation
Daniel Graziadei

Part IV: Translation as zombification

8. Zombie history: the undead in translation
Gudrun Rath

9. ‘MmmRRRrr UrrRrRRrr!!’: translating political anxieties into zombie language in digital games
Eugen Pfister

With thanks to Progressive Geographies for this info

Smith, Zadie. “Fascinated to presume: In defense of fiction.The New York Review of Books 24 (2019).

A really wonderful philosophical reflection by Zadie Smith on the reasons for writing and reading fiction and for an engagement with and inclusion of the diversity of human experience.

A few extracts that I found particularly helpful. I would also apply these ideas to non-fiction as well.

[…] a book can try to modify your behavior, but it has no way of knowing for sure that it has. In front of a book you are still free. Between reader and book, there is only the continual risk of wrongness, word by word, sentence by sentence. The Internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.

The old—and never especially helpful—adage write what you know has morphed into something more like a threat: Stay in your lane. This principle permits the category of fiction, but really only to the extent that we acknowledge and confess that personal experience is inviolate and nontransferable. It concedes that personal experience may be displayed, very carefully, to the unlike-us, to the stranger, even to the enemy—but insists it can never truly be shared by them. This rule also pertains in the opposite direction: the experience of the unlike-us can never be co-opted, ventriloquized, or otherwise “stolen” by us. (As the philosopher Anthony Appiah has noted, these ideas of cultural ownership share some DNA with the late-capitalist concept of brand integrity.) Only those who are like us are like us. Only those who are like us can understand us—or should even try. Which entire philosophical edifice depends on visibility and legibility, that is, on the sense that we can be certain of who is and isn’t “like us” simply by looking at them and/or listening to what they have to say.

Fiction was suspicious of any theory of the self that appeared to be largely founded on what can be seen with the human eye, that is, those parts of our selves that are material, manifest, and clearly visible in a crowd. Fiction—at least the kind that was any good—was full of doubt, self-doubt above all. It had grave doubts about the nature of the self.

While looking for resources for the creative writing course I am running this semester, I came across some fantastic sets of rules put together by a number of well-known authors at The Guardian‘s request. The lists are introduced as follows: “Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, we asked authors for their personal dos and don’ts”

Ten rules for writing fiction – part one

Ten rules for writing fiction – part two

Authors include: Elmore Leonard, Diana Athill, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Helen Dunmore, Geoff Dyer, Anne Enright, Richard Ford, Jonathan Franzen, Esther Freud, Neil Gaiman, David Hare, PD James, AL Kennedy, Hilary Mantel, Michael Moorcock, Michael Morpurgo, Andrew Motion, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Philip Pullman, Ian Rankin, Will Self, Helen Simpson, Zadie Smith, Colm Tóibín, Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson.

Quite a roll call! The rules are, of course, as diverse as the authors’ works. The additional research I have been doing for my course has been inspiring me to consider revisiting early ambitions to write fiction before I was diverted into the byways of the academic writing genre.

Many of the often highly entertaining rules on the list are naturally variations on the bread and butter rules for all those who write and ones I am all too familiar with, although possibly more honoured in the breach than the observance. The rules I most connected in with were Michael Moorcock’s – although I am no big fan of his fiction.

One of my difficulties has always been how to devise a plot. Moorcock suggests in his second rule: “Find an author you admire (mine was Conrad) and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.” This kind of reworking of another source is something I have always found fascinating in general – but hadn’t thought to actually apply it systematically to my own attempts at fiction.

I like Moorcock’s 7th rule as well: “For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.”. Here is a link to this formula for general edification, appropriately posted in the Creative Writing section on the ‘Fandom’ site.

I did like Colm Tóibín’s rules – which apply to any kind of writing – particularly these:

1 Finish everything you start.
2 Get on with it.
3 Stay in your mental pyjamas all day.
4 Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
9 No going to London.
10 No going anywhere else either.

It just goes to show that writers have long been familiar with the concept of lockdown. Having said all this, my fiction writing projects are probably not for the immediate future in a university environment that is in meltdown at present. But let’s not venture onto that sad territory today!

A reflection below from an interesting article on the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s love of American hard boiled detective fiction. Wittgenstein is not known for being an easy read amongst philosophers! Zimmerman provides a nice summation of why we like the fiction we do. This has pretty much always been my own approach to fiction. I see it as part and parcel of my other philosophical interests. It is philosophical reflection played out on another stage.

“Well, why do we—any of us—love the particular fiction we do? Probably not because it matches our philosophical convictions. We choose a genre of fiction because it chooses us—because it speaks to us on the primary level of identity. To read fiction is to inhabit other selves, try on alternative lives, run test cases that probe and stretch our inner and outer relations. And then to return to our actual lives, where we find that the temporary reimagining has already spilled over, quickening, enriching.”

Philip K. Zimmerman, ‘The philosopher and the detectives: Ludwig Wittgenstein’s enduring passion for hardboiled fiction’, CrimeReads, September 24, 2020

This post was originally intended as a bare-bones response to Bruno Latour’s challenge to list hopes for change emerging out of the coronavirus crisis, but ended up being prefaced by a preamble on my difficulties with writing and a reflection on my current context.

For quite some time, I have suffered (and I use the word advisedly) from the realisation that anything I have to say has already been said – and often far better by someone else. As an academic trained in the best traditions of high modernism, this incapacity to maintain a position at the forefront of the bleeding edge avant-garde has a stifling effect, muzzling one into a helpless silence. It is a recipe for endless disappointment, as one finds, in an overpopulated public forum, that one seemingly brilliant idea after another has already been articulated by someone else. Added to this is that other Enlightenment ideal that knowledge and expertise will somehow provide the solution to every problem. Things are in reality far more ambiguous. There is also the expectation, for a certain type of intellectual at least, that one must speak with the voice of truth, be a prophet in the wilderness, a sign and inspiration to all. These modernist and pre-modernist imperatives haunt the edges of every attempt at publication, like the ghastly phantom presence of some long forgotten and unmourned ancestor.

This latter pretension was taken to task by Michel Foucault who criticised the notion that intellectuals should speak as the universal voice for all and offer a guiding light to the collective road ahead. His own towering figure and monumental work was of course a thorough contradiction of his words, but they are words that at least point to a possible path for others. The radically non-didactic and inclusive tenor of his investigations also offers an open invitation to pursue a myriad of directions far removed from his original concerns.

Perhaps, as Foucault suggests again, all one can do is speak from the standpoint of one’s own inquiries and experience, hoping to find connections with others, however slight. Perhaps merely adding another voice to the collective discussion that is human existence, another voice with all its subtle nuances of individual difference, might just be that barely perceptible shade, that trifle, that helps another to clarify their own point of view. Perhaps, in the end, that’s all that’s needed – that tentative shred of hope that other connections can be made no matter how obscure and fleeting.

Bruno Latour proposes: “a little exercise to make sure things don’t restart after the lockdown just as they were before.” This is in the form of inviting responses to a list of questions. He has also set up an online platform to facilitate these responses. He specifies: “This exercise is not a question of expressing an opinion but of describing your situation and what you may be investigating.” Latour also suggests that this might be a tentative contribution to a networked discussion – fragments of ideas to share and to discuss that might eventually and gradually find an embodied form through communication – friendly or otherwise – with others.

Essentially, he is inviting people to make a list of their hopes for change in a context that paradoxically in this time of physical lockdowns, has become a lot more fluid, more open to the possibility of real change. And of course all of this comes – as so often in human history – at an immense cost to people’s lives, health and well-being.

So, I am going to try out some of my own fragmentary responses to Latour’s invitation, tweaking them for my own purposes. This is very much from the perspective of my own lived experience – not a theorised or even a practical position – but it is most certainly and unapologetically opinionated. These are semi-formed thoughts on the go, an invitation to others to share their own perhaps better formed questions and proposals. And of course, it is entirely possible in this rapidly evolving situation that my own answers will be very different tomorrow.

To give these reflections a concrete physical context: I am an academic working in a large university in Queensland, Australia. Australia is in a more than privileged position in the current crisis – for now at least. It has been able to leverage the fact that it is a remote island continent with borders that can be sealed from the rest of the world. It is also a wealthy country with ample space and pleasant weather. (But it does need to be said that at the beginning of February 2020, 13.6% of the population was living below the poverty line. That percentage is set to increase. The higher education sector, where I am placed is also in trouble.) So for all the self-congratulatory rhetoric of various pundits in relation to Australia’s (so far) efficient management of the crisis, circumstances and the specificities of geography and history have played a central role.

These are of course, very early days and the future is uncertain. Lockdown restrictions at the time of writing are easing by slow increments. Strangely, the stepdown is inducing an even more uncertain feeling of limbo as the reality dawns that it will be up to individuals – no longer the government – to strategise in relation to their own future safety. Globally, we tread in uncharted territory with enormous suffering being the price to pay for having ignored for so long all the warning signs counselling against the march of untrammeled greed, self interest and the exploitation of both human and non-human.

Prior to this crisis, I had the sense of waiting for something; marking time, straining ahead towards an increasingly narrow horizon; locked down in a joyless prison of the overwhelming expectations of performativity within a tightly regulated neoliberal framework. It is a personal perception that has been slowly dissipating during this crisis. My sense now is of having the present restored – a present not constrained by the rigid dictates of past or future, a present not locked down and with an open uncertain vista ahead. But it is a fragile present and one can only hope that the prison doors don’t slam shut again. It’s with this in mind that I’m addressing the questions Latour proposes. My responses are in no particular order, encompassing the very local as well as the very global with no expectation, as I said earlier, that my responses will be the same tomorrow.
 

Question 1: What are the activities now suspended that you would like to see not resumed?

This is my list.

  1. The extraordinarily oppressive system of anonymous student evaluations of teaching in universities. Due to the fact the university has had to unilaterally move most of its courses online, it has suspended these evaluations for this academic year.
  2. Everybody endlessly rushing around in a frenetic circuit of work, performative leisure activities, constant movement through space with no time to appreciate the immediate environment, to enjoy the everyday, to pause to spend unstructured time with others.
  3. A joyless, regulated existence in the workplace and in everyday life – with a relentless performative drive aimed at reducing uncertainty and risk at every turn while promoting dubious measures of “growth”, “impact” and “productivity”. All of this leaving widespread unhappiness, illness, machine noise, air pollution and the ever more efficient destruction of vegetation, animal life and landscape in its wake.
  4. The enormous and obsessive fixation on real estate property and its value and enhancement through an ongoing cycle of renovation.
  5. Heavily mediatised and overpaid spectator sport and the 2020 Olympics.

 

Question 2: Describe why you think this activity is harmful/ superfluous/ dangerous/inconsistent and how its disappearance/suspension/substitution would make the activities you favor easier/ more consistent.

My response:

  1. In the performative ideology that has increasingly permeated every nook and cranny of existence, the convenient belief has been that anonymous feedback systems of surveillance are needed to ensure professionals do a good job. The way I am teaching has not changed during this suspension (apart from going online), but I find that without the cloud of prospective evaluations hanging over my head, a dreary weight of drudgery and oppression has lifted. There is a welcome sensation of space for freedom and enjoyment in my interactions with students. Enforced evaluations haven’t always existed. The thought of having to go back to that crushing, joyless, soul-destroying disciplinary regime feels like sandpaper against the skin.
  2. People taking their time and staying in place rather than endlessly performing and rushing around has removed a degree of exhausted frenzy from the atmosphere. Unfortunately a degree of frenzied performance appears to be creeping back in – if the constant parade of determined walkers, exercisers and picnickers in every available urban park is any indication.
  3. I would like to see more respect and recognition for both the human and the non-human. This had been steadily decreasing in the suspended system. The treatment of all beings and entities whether living or not with respect, rather than as disposable tools aimed at increasing a mythical “growth”, should be the goal. I would like to see the recognition of human and biological rhythms, not a spiraling servitude to the machine rhythms of computers and associated systems . Another hope is for the creation of networks amongst existences that are not hierarchical and managerial. I would like to see a future that is not locked down but open to possibilities – even if these are not risk free, with a recognition that human existence is risky by definition, at the same time being careful to emphasise that this is not a risk that should be taken at others’ expense.
  4. Housing should be shelter not an investment. Relaxing, comfortable, spacious and beautiful shelters for all, at an affordable price, built and functioning in harmony with the non-human (plants, animals and landscape) would be the ideal. I would also like to see the return and growth of programs of innovative public and social housing.
  5. Just to address the local sports scene: I don’t miss the marketing, financial and ideological juggernaut that is spectator sport: heavily mediatised, financially dubious, with its constant and tedious ‘boys will be boys’ sex, drugs, money and other scandals in the Australian football codes (mainly rugby league and Australian rules) and its dominance of the news and media programming. Nor do I miss the jingoistic, non-inclusive national identity mythmaking attached to these sports. I would like to see a lot less money go into this sector and its decoupling from notions of national identity and newsworthiness.
  6. (5a) Likewise, the Olympics represents an enormous financial burden on the host country, often at the expense of the already poor and is arguably a competition to see who has the best methods for concealing performance enhancing drugs. The twentieth century imperatives and ideologies that resurrected and refashioned the elite Ancient Greek tradition of the Olympics are no longer current and interest has been declining for a number of years now. I would suggest that the world no longer needs the Olympics.

 

Question 3: What measures do you recommend to ensure that the workers/employees/agents/entrepreneurs who will no longer be able to continue in the activities you are removing are helped in their transition toward other activities.

I would like to include all members of the social body in this question. My answers are simple in the abstract, complex in the practical implementation.

  1. My first answer is a universal basic income – not partial but universal. No exceptions. By universal income, I mean a model that allocates a subsistence income to every single adult citizen, one that is paid for by the tax system. This income would act as a safety net for individuals during times of individual and social crisis. Job earnings would be paid on top of this untaxed basic income.
  2. My second answer is a free education for all. And by free education, I mean open and non-fee paying access to an education that is not tied to social distinction and galloping credentialism.
  3. Thirdly, targeted programs and funding for setting up systems and practices which aim for a harmonious balance of how we live and cooperate with our natural environment and with the non-human entities on the planet.

 

Question 4: Which of the now suspended activities would you like to develop/resume or even create from scratch?

  1. A well-funded arts sector and the encouragement for everybody to take part in amateur expressions of art and culture.
  2. Universities as well-funded and well-respected high end education and research institutions, with the humanities and theoretical social and physical sciences in addition to the perceived more ‘useful’ sectors of applied science and vocational studies to be held in high regard by the entire social body. These institutions need not be large and I would like to see them decoupled from mechanisms of social distinction and credentialism.
  3. The time and spaces for relaxed human sociability, even if we do have to live with ‘social distancing’ for quite some time to come.

 

Question 5: Describe why this activity seems positive to you and how it makes it easier/ more harmonious/ consistent with other activities that you favor and helps to combat those that you consider unfavorable.

My answers:

  1. Humans are unable to thrive without the arts and spiritual practices of all kinds. These are the things that give life meaning and joy. Why has there been the expectation that they can somehow continue to exist without material support for those who produce these things? There is also too much of a disparity between the few artists who do extraordinarily well and the majority who live hand to mouth.
  2. High-level research needs to continue to warn people of social and environmental dangers, to promote social and individual well-being, to explore and expand the limits of human experience and open people’s eyes to the enormous expanse of all the networks, human and non-human, that we interact with. This research should be seen as a public good and funded as such.
  3. The answer is obvious here, humans need to support and be supported by other humans.

 

Question 6: What measures do you recommend to help workers/ employees/ agents/ entrepreneurs acquire the capacities/ means/ income/ instruments to take over/ develop/ create this favored activity.

Short and sharp here. See question 3. A universal basic income and free education for all.
 

Conclusion

This whole crisis, painful and destructive as so many elements of it are, is an invitation to begin again (to borrow Foucault’s phrase), to reconfigure, start and renew positive discussions and collaborations, no matter how modest and tentative these initiatives are at the outset. My hopes are manifestly more than a little Utopian, but no-one ever got anywhere by thinking small. And of course, we always need to bear in mind the warning and proviso that today’s solutions are tomorrow’s problems.
 
With thanks to Peter Johnson on the Heterotopian Studies site for the link to Bruno Latour’s framework.

Five years ago, I put together a research paper on the problems of open plan offices in universities. These problems were by no means limited to the higher education sector but were evident across multiple industries. One of the points I raised related to the dangers of disease transmission. Of course, this is now a problem which has come home to roost in a very major way in the wake of the global pandemic. Although the ostensible reason for the construction of open plan offices was “collaboration”- something they arguably reduced in fact, the convenient rhetoric hid the true reason, which was a perceived cost saving (again perceived rather than actual – given a measured reduction of worker productivity in this environment) and greater surveillance.

There must be many companies now kicking themselves for their false economy in foisting these designs on their hapless workers. When this article titled “The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Office” appeared in The New York Times recently, I had to laugh. As the article says of a movement which has gathered increasing momentum in the last ten years:

The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.

The phrase ‘now realize’ is ironic considering that these dangers had already been pointed out in some detail by researchers and of course unceremoniously ignored. The miseries of the open plan worker, now mask wearing and surrounded by perspex, are only set to be compounded.

As Ron Weiner says below, a number of the measures taken to deal with the problem will amount to little more than theatre – no more than a symbolic gesture by employers with very little real world efficacy for their employees.

The proposed changes to the offices have struck some as more cosmetic than substantive, especially the sneeze guard.

“I call it social distancing theater, like T.S.A. security theater after 9/11,” said Ron Wiener, chief executive of iMovR, a Seattle company that designs standing desks that are used at many large employers, from Google and Facebook to the Department of Defense.

So how is the problem going to be solved? Allow Darwinian selection to take its course and save on salaries? Send the workforce home? Have a staggered roster system? Many of the open plan offices are new, built on the graveyard of individual offices – too large an investment for companies to demolish and rebuild or even substantially refit. It will be interesting to see where things go from here.

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