File spoon-archives/bhaskar.archive/bhaskar_2001/bhaskar.0109, message 1

Date: Tue, 04 Sep 2001 07:33:24 +1000
Subject: BHA: Thoughts occasioned by Copenhagen

Time out at Frankfurt and Singapore airports has allowed  for some 
reflection on the recent conference in Copenhagen. I would like to start by 
acknowledging the graciousness of the Danish Organisers and especially 
Peter Neilsen for his support and hospitality and tolerance of deadlines 

I was looking forward to Copenhagen for the annual Critical Realist 
conferences provides me with a much needed sense of a collective 
camaraderie amidst the lived experience of a very isolating 
environment.  Frankly I was however dismayed by the re-conference news that 
Roy Bhaskar was unlikely to attend but went in hope, that even if this were 
to prove true that the conference would still continue the tradition of the 
sheer excitement and élan of the Critical Realist project.

Coming out of the Railway Station in search of the street that housed our 
hotel, I came across a horrifying sight that had a big impact on me and 
indeed still has.  A young man was sitting on the ground with his feet out 
in front of him.  Bent over him was another man.  I noticed the man on the 
ground had a needle and saw it being pushed into his arm.  The young man 
screamed out and blood spurted from his arm.  I can still hear that 
scream.  It was like something out of the Auguries of Innocence - Each 
outcry of the hunted hare/ A fibre from the brain doth tear.  There is an 
Irish poem too about a rabbit in a snare and its scream compelling the poet 
to search for it so he can liberate it from its agony.  Alas there was no 
liberation for this man.  He got up and strode past me wiping the blood 
from his arm.  The police were standing looking on throughout the whole 

Of course I live in a big city and I know about heroin and have seen 
discarded needles, but I have never been a personal witness to such an 
event before.  It left me shaken and feeling more than ever out of touch 
with the real world.  Truly at such moments I feel I belong to a different era.

Whatever the case the drug incident sort of set the tone for my reaction to 
the conference.  Basically I found it to be inward looking and all too 
little concerned with what is going on outside.  Of course this is a fate 
that waits in ambush for most academic conferences, but Critical Realism is 
something different or at least it is supposed to be.  After all we are 
about underlabouring for human emancipation are we not?

My mood was not helped by two moments of what I can only call 
unrecognition, when I simply did not understand why I was in Copenhagen and 
could not recognise what had happened to the Critical Realist 
movement.  Both of these were associated with key note speaker Bob 
Jessop.  Jessop is of course a most distinguished scholar and just the sort 
of person that Critical Realism needs to engage.  However he seemed to 
bring to the conference a persona, which unfortunately reminded me all too 
much of my long ago graduate seminars in Essex.  There old Professor 
Springer used to deliver avuncular judgements on our contributions - There 
were deemed to be 'helpful' or, as all too often in my own case, 'unhelpful'.

By and large Professor Jessop seemed to think the contributions of the rest 
of us unhelpful.  On the first occasion of unrecognition he had taken issue 
with Margaret Archer and argued that each project we undertake creates its 
own context. As with his own paper on complexity I detected a tendency on 
Jessop's part to downplay stratification and to fetishize surface complexity.

The second occasion was during the discussion of the paper on Cultural 
Studies that I co-authored with Peter Thomas. Our paper followed one 
delivered by Hans Pühretmayer calling for dialogue within Cultural 
Studies.  For a start I was delighted to see any papers on Cultural 
Studies.  The dominance of sociology within the Critical Realist movement 
was never more apparent than in Roskilde.  After the main speakers I 
decided to intervene and responded to the call for dialogue.  I pointed out 
that this was extremely difficult given the actual context of working 
within Cultural Studies.  It is one of history's little ironies that 
Brisbane has been the site of crucial turns within the Cultural Studies 
discipline such as the abandonment of Critique and the turn to Policy in 
the late 80s. I believe is at present playing an important part in the 
current move to Creative Industries.

Hans politely replied that his call for dialogue was not to do with current 
practice but rather meant a demand for an engagement with the ideas of 
Louis Althusser. Now I have a fondness for the unfashionable and the 'dead 
dogs' of history, so in principle I support such a call. Besides Bhaskar 
himself has explicitly called for an appropriation of the legacy of 
Althusser. But I myself in my contribution had an eye to the present perils 
and problems of being a Critical Realist within Cultural Studies.  Bless 
me, but in my naivety I thought the audience would be interested.

At this stage Chair Jessop intervened to dismiss what I had to say.  He 
said something about how we can always complain that 'the world is against 
us' and steered the meeting back to Althusser.  The ghost of Professor 
Springer seemed to have returned and to be sat frowning at me.  But I am 
older and more truculent now.  And so I took the opportunity to point out 
that I did not believe the world was against us but rather that the world 
was moving in a direction that we were supposed to be moving in 
too.  Outside the halls of Roskilde there was now a new global movement 
that was attempting to underlabor in its own way for human 
emancipation.   But seemingly we within the Critical Realist movement had 
nothing to say to it.  I also pointed out that we lived at a time of the 
exhaustion of the neo-liberal push and that the subsequent vacuum should be 
filled by the Critical Realist movement engaging the present. Jessop used 
his position as the chair to have the last word with me.  But for the life 
of me I cannot recall what he said.  More 'unhelpful contribution' I am 
afraid.  To be honest my resonse to him was not helped by the fact that I 
am Irish and I react very badly to put downs delivered in posh English accents.

However I have to say that the conference ended on a high for me with 
Justin Cruickshank's paper.  I was especially interested in his 
contribution on methodology.  This was nothing less than brilliant and I 
was simply astonished to discover later that it was sheer spur of the 
moment stuff.  (But is he happy?) I do hope he writes it up.  I 
particularly enjoyed the sparring between Justin and Mervyn over Karl 
Popper.  Justin confessed to a fondness for the latter's work and Mervyn 
would have absolutely no adulation for a former Cold War warrior. Lively!

Other highlights were conversations I had with Margaret, Rachel, Gary, 
Steve and Manindra Thakur. So I am anxious to continue to be upbeat about 
Critical Realism.  However I think we need to do some careful planning for 



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