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The Workshop

Session 2011

JWTC workshop session 2010Ordinary States | States of Ordinariness

10 - 20 July 2011

Session 2011 Application form (CLOSED FOR 2011)

Many of the social institutions from an earlier era that protected citizens from chance by ensuring a certain minimum standard of living (for example, unemployment assistance, provision of education, assured healthcare, provision for a secure retirement) are rapidly being eroded, actively dismantled, or reconceived. The one time sense of ordinariness in terms of social security and safety has given way to an increasing division between private markets for the affording few and begrudging, contested, and diminishing support for the rest. A former sense of unilinear development - the supposed inevitability of progress - has also broken down, as high unemployment becomes a permanent rather than a cyclical condition, as the process of de-industrialization continues (making more and more of the population economically redundant), as educational institutions face greater strains and start to contract, as civil infrastructure deteriorates, and as present insecurity and uncertainty about possible futures become conditions of everyday life.

Although states of the global North appear now just to be facing their own version of what it means to live under "critical conditions", states and their populations across the global South have long inhabited under such conditions for a variety of reasons. There, progress and modernization are not the ordinary conditions that are being taken away. They are in many cases conditions whose promise was never actualized in the first place. Anti-colonial resistance and projects of national liberation in many cases never fulfilled their promise of true political emancipation. New states turned out to be as beholden to foreign domination as ever, if in and on transformed terms; and, increasingly, colonial exploitation has shifted into postcolonial exploitation, if not a return to full-blown military occupations and projects of colonial settlement.

Perhaps relatedly, the last quarter of the twentieth century saw the development of a variety of theoretical, historical and ethnographic critiques of "the everyday". It was believed that by bringing to visibility the lives of those who had been sidelined by dominant accounts of social life, a strategic deployment of this concept would usher new reinterpretations of power and culture and a re-imagining of the relations between "the subject", the world and "the event" under conditions of modernity. It was also a way of bringing to life the ordinary workings of cities and the means people found of inhabiting them.

Questioning the unproblematic acceptance of "everyday life" as a self-evident and transparent realm of human existence, such critiques emphasized the agency of individuals. They also offered thick descriptions of the institutions that rendered the governance of daily life possible, while highlighting the inherent ambiguity of any performance of self, class, gender or race and recording the repetitive practices that produced and reproduced power in the real world.

The turn to "affect" in the early to mid-1990s reopened critical theory and cultural criticism to bodily life and the realms of emotion and sensation. While offering a much wider definition of the social and of the political, critical discourses of the emotions also helped to reconceptualize ‘the ordinary" as a disparate assortment of affective encounters - a regime of expressivity tied to worlds of feelings, passions, intimacy and desire.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has witnessed a broad shift towards a focus on "biopolitics". This has been propelled by the repetition of violent events, prolonged states of enmity, various forms of emergencies, wars of occupation and disasters. As a result of this new critique, the manner in which we used to define "the norm" and "the exception", the relationships between violence and "the ordinary", normality and emergency, friendship and enmity, law, crime and democracy has changed. It is now understood that if life itself has become the prime medium for exerting power, power in turn is fundamentally the capacity to control and redistribute the means of destruction and survival. Such control and redistribution is said to rest on the interruption of "the ordinary". The latter has therefore been contrasted with "the exception", that is, that which is literally "outside" or "beyond" the normal course of things.

It is precisely the entanglement of "the everyday", "the ordinary" and "the exception" the 2011 Workshop aims to examine. As crises after crises unfold, they leave in their wake a different world. Yet things continue pretty much the same. Dramas are rerouted onto different planes or get reabsorbed into new forms. Although "the ordinary", "the everyday", "the banal" and "the exception" are not interchangeable, they exist in a reciprocally defining relationship. The Workshop will explore afresh the question of "the ordinary"/"ordinariness" and its significance for contemporary politics, culture and aesthetics. We will deploy the notion of "ordinariness' as a means to think about the changing parameters of place, space, time and selfhood, in the hope of untangling the historical threads that combine to produce it and to embed it in dense networks of power, exchange and reciprocity. Most importantly we will revisit the "ordinary"/"exception" divide in light of contemporary shifts in the bio-, political and eco-spheres, as well as changes in global economic structures and technologies.

These concerns will be addresses against a self-reflexive backdrop concerning what it means, today, to think critically. What is the value of critical theory under the present circumstances?

A few broad concerns will animate the 2011 Workshop

Shifts in the constitution of contemporary forms of life - What are the forces that are reshaping the physical, political, and psychic conditions of embodiment and daily experience in our times? To what extent and in what ways have the new technologies of image and the convergence of visual and consumer cultures created new belief structures, transformed what is taken for "fact" ("evidence", "the real"), or altered the basis of our sensory experience and the connections of human beings to otherwise incomprehensible phenomena? In a context in which everything tends to become a matrix of numbers or "data" separated from "meaning", what are the new ways in which we think about the nature of matter and the matter of nature, the built environment and lived practice, the domestic and the intimate? Can it be argued that sound and image, voice, text and the senses have been reduced to surface effects? What has been the impact of these transformations in terms of contemporary conceptions of material causality, or in terms of the ways in which we fill the space between fear and anxiety; truth, fiction and imagination?

Intimate attachments - To what extent the infrastructures of contemporary culture allow for novel imaginations of the sentiments of attachment and the proliferation of narratives of personal being? If the circuit from affect to emotion is attached to a circulation of images meant to stimulate desire, how does the connection of affect and capital reconfigure "the ordinary" and its extra-? What are the political and symbolic economies that shape intimate attachments and the ways these attachments are embedded in historically situated worlds, cultural practices and material conditions? What are the new symbols and lexicons that enable passions and emotions (anger, envy, fascination, revulsion, melancholy, happiness, love, jealousy) to be expressed and the forms they take in the public sphere?

Bodies of data, secrecy and security - To what extent operating as ways of racing populations, new technologies of surveillance, new modes of monitoring bodily affect as information (from DNA testing to brain fingerprinting, neural imaging, iris or hand recognition) reshape the politics of the present and pave the way for new forms of colonization of "the ordinary"? How should we interpret the proliferation of sites of lawlessness under the auspices of the law, or the emergence of formations of everyday rule whose technologies thrive on the constant redefinition of legal categories of belonging, quasi-membership and exclusion? And how are these connected to energetic moves by the powerful to undo regulatory structures and laws as soon as they come into existence? What remains of people's lives in the material and psychic ruins that colonial or para-colonial occupations, pre-emptive military assaults in the name of peace, partial annexations, martial law, internment in camps and states of emergency leave in their wake? And relatedly alongside of them of liberalism's vaunted (because supposedly ordinary) freedoms and privacies?

The ordinary, form and formlessness - We will finally examine the relation between "the ordinary" and "the spectacular"; the way the ordinary produces the arts that in turn produce the ordinary. Particular attention will be devoted to the interactions of the verbal, visual, textual, sonorous, kinetic, architectural and material aspects of the ordinary?