Conjunctural Promises

A retrospective roundtable honoring John Clarke.

On November 22, 2019, at  the AAA Annual Meting in Vancouver, Canada, an Association for the Anthropology of Policy (ASAP) roundtable discussion was organized on the theme “Conjunctural Promises” in honor of the United Kingdom-born cultural studies and policy studies scholar John Clarke. Clarke’s work emphasizes the value of conjunctural analysis over a singular or unitary account of politics and policy, focused on the multiplicity of forces, pressures, tendencies, contradictions, and conflicts that mark the present, and concerned with the dominant, residual, and emergent forms of politics. Four panelists assessed the importance of Clarke’s work for our times and painted a clear picture of a scholar whose openness to dialogue and willingness to go the extra mile in supporting others, is second to none. Short extracts from their presentations, and John Clarke’s response, are reproduced here. Full versions of the presentations will be published as an ASAP Occasional Paper that can be accessed via the ASAP website.

His critique of orthodox Marxism, he suggested, does not deny the centrality of the economic but demands that we understand its articulation with all the levels or instances of actual social formations.

Kathy Coll (University of San Francisco) spoke of how Clarke “confounds the borders of disciplines and politics of scale in citizenship studies, but also in academic hierarchies” making “room for more and different people at the table.” Her initial encounter led to a collective book Disputing Citizenship (Clarke et al, 2014) addressing “the problem of how citizenship is formed out of contextually located entanglements of culture, politics and power—and never culture in general, politics in general, or power in general” (ibid. 1–3). Noting the importance of Clarke’s support and encouragement for her own career, Coll recalls watching him “do the same for younger scholars, especially women fighting to make their work known and understood where disciplinary boundaries of academic citizenship and cultural boundaries of gender, sexuality, race and nationality all constrain us.” She concluded by expressing her gratitude to Clarke for being “an alternative role model,” bringing scholars such as Janet Newman, Catherine Neveu, and Evelina Dagnino into her life, and for the complicated lineage of citizens, scholars, and activists that he has helped bring together.

Anu Sharma (Wesleyan University) spoke of Clarke as embodying “the intellectual generosity and collegiality, the political commitment, and above all the goodness and genuine warmth that is rare to chance upon in the world of academia” and “of his commitment to decoloniality as an embodied ethos and practice.” Thinking with Clarke, Sharma explored the unfinished nature of “the convivial path of commoning and collaboration” that Clarke walks. As a critical thinker of crises, seeing them as neither “linear or singular or temporally definable or predictable,” Clarke sees conjunctures as “moments of overdetermined condensation of multiple layers and processes, in precarious articulation with each other,” thereby suggesting ways to intervene, “disassemble or re-assemble otherwise.” Noting Clarke’s penchant for words beginning with the letter “c” in his work, Sharma added, following Stacey Ann Langwick (2018), “composting,” to refer to a process of turning and re-turning crucial to critical thinking and as “a decolonial ethos, always under cultivation, to live in and beyond crisis.”

Jeff Maskovsky (City University of New York Graduate Center) recalled meeting Clarke as the start of one of the most important intellectual conversations of his life, with collaborations that include, most recently, a series of workshops that led to the publication of an anthology, Beyond Populism: Angry Politics and the Twilight of Neoliberalism (Maskovsky and Bjork-James 2020). An important lesson from John’s work for the present conjuncture is, he suggested, that “if we ignore the multiple sources of anger and the ambiguities that persist…we can’t see the new lines of political danger and possibility that open up in the aftermath of moments such as the vote for Brexit,” which he has applied in his own work on Trumpism. Situating John as a major thinker in what Katz (1996) refers to as minor theory, “grounded, fluid and relational and because it speaks to the problematics of our time with a commitment to the local and the particular,” as “antidote to the masculinist, grand-narratives posturing of major theory (Katz 1996; 2017). Clarke’s work takes seriously people’s refusals, resistances, and recalcitrance, encouraging us not to overstate the power of dominant governing projects, practices, and rationalities.”

Paul Stubbs (The Institute of Economics, Zagreb) focused on Clarke’s contribution to anthropological approaches to social and public policy. Describing the collaboration that led to Making Policy Move (Clarke et al., 2015) as the best intellectual journey of his life, Stubbs outlined how Clarke’s ideas have shaped his own work on social policy in South East Europe seeing “social welfare not as a marginal or side effect of authoritarian neoliberalism, but a privileged arena of struggle for a hegemonic moral economy” (Stubbs 2019). Clarke’s attention to conjunctural analysis as “not a theory but an orientation” suggest a need to understand “the multiplicity of forces, accumulated antagonisms, and possible lines of emergence” at work. In Changing Welfare, Changing States (Clarke, 2004), he unlocks the complex and fluid meanings of welfare amidst the shifting nature of both the state and imaginaries of nationhood and family. Recalling the conversation published in Critical Dialogues (Clarke 2019), Stubbs noted their continued shared interest in the power of “ambivalence” in critical thought and action, defined by Clarke as, “the condition of not being certain in theoretical or political terms and thereby being open to the play of different orientations or possibilities” or, more simply thinking and feeling “more than one thing at a time.”

Clarke, professor emeritus at The Open University, United Kingdom) began his response by acknowledging “a swirl of emotions: embarrassment, gratitude, joy, and quite a bit of sadness surrounding what will be my last visit to the AAA after almost 20 years”. The version of anthropology he found in the Society for the Anthropology of North America (SANA), and later in an anthropology of policy, “hit an intersection between my cultural studies inheritances and my peculiar interests in policy studies, welfare politics, states, citizenship and the rest.” He noted how anthropology had helped to “provincialize” Europe and the United Kingdom, for example, in learning from Sharma’s work on the shifting and ambiguous configurations of state and civil society or about the challenge of thinking the national question transnationally. Taking pleasure in the company of the many people met through the AAA, SANA, CASCA, and ASAP, Clarke recalled his long-standing dread of becoming one of those senior male academics who tells you the thing they know, over and over again. Cultural studies offered a model—literally in the form of Stuart Hall—of a commitment to “thinking again” as the core of good intellectual work.

Clarke’s work emphasizes the value of conjunctural analysis over a singular or unitary account of politics and policy.

He noted both his debt to “second wave” British feminists in terms of the importance of how one conducts oneself and how one thinks, not least in terms of the refusal of reductive binary logics, and the importance of Hall, met first as a graduate student, and later becoming a colleague, collaborator, and close friend. “Stuart embodied the commitments to ‘thinking again’ and to the demanding practice of collaborative working. He was wonderful to listen to: hearing what David Scott (2017) has called ‘Stuart Hall’s voice’ was always a powerful experience because it was always in motion, epitomizing the idea of ‘thinking on your feet’. But Scott also rightly emphasizes Stuart’s gift for listening and thinking with others: what he calls ‘an ethics of receptive generosity’.”

His critique of orthodox Marxism, he suggested, does not deny the centrality of the economic but demands that we understand its articulation with all the levels or instances of actual social formations, as opposed to the abstracted (and epochal) conception of modes of production. Analyzing particular historical moments in concrete social formations cannot then be reduced to the “fundamentals” (by which orthodox Marxists mean economic contradictions and relationships), leaving aside the “epiphenomenal froth” of the complex formation of social forces, contradictions, and conflicts. Such historical conjunctures may have epochal consequences, bringing about what Antonio Gramsci called “organic” changes, and in his work Clarke has traced and analyzed these as effects or consequences, not as the working out of an underlying economic logic. Recalling how the panelists had referred to his penchant for “c” words, he concluded by suggesting that “this event has reminded me in very powerful ways that I have been exceptionally fortunate in my friends.”

Paul Stubbs is a senior research fellow in the Institute of Economics, Zagreb, and copresident of the Association for the Anthropology of Policy.

Cite as: Stubbs, Paul. 2020. “Conjunctural Promises.” Anthropology News website, December 11, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1554

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