Kieran Keohane – May 6th 2021 – 10:00 GMT
I’ll begin with a brief review of two general theoretical paradigms to help us account for both the bad (violent) and good (collaborative) manifestations of the current Covid-19 pandemic crisis by drawing on theories of René Girard and Marcel Mauss. Girard’s theory is used to explain and understand the social and viral contagions and scapegoating violence. As an antidote to pathological mimetic contagion, Mauss’ theory of the Gift helps to account for the positive mimetic responses to the pandemic, from balcony singing and everyday acts of generosity, to state, public health and municipal responses to coronavirus that are characterized by empathy, solidarity and generosity. Then, looking to a post-covid future, I will develop the Maussian-Girardian theme through the work of Nidish Lawtoo and others to look for signs of good models and positive mimesis as hopeful grounds and horizons for economy & society after covid-19.
Each seminar was recorded and featured one or more readings, please find these below.
Today we were treated to a hopeful and uplifting talk by newly minted professor sociology at University College Cork Kieran Keohane. In his talk Kieran spoke extensively about articulating visions of positivity, and that while COVID-19 is a crisis which has caused significant issues in economy and society – that we can produce something positive out of this. While sociology is often a negative discipline which defines and analyses problematics, takes a critical stance and talks about the sacrificial and Faustian aspects of our culture – Kieran is making a case for why we ought to be more positive.
We include screenshots of the slides of Kieran’s talk throughout. He began by reflecting on the possibilities of education to ‘turn our souls’ as Plato said – and outlining the scope of the current problems facing us.
We are of course experiencing many different kinds of contagions now. We have a microbiological contagion (COVID-19); ideological contagions (Brexit, Orban, Trump); ecological contagions (climate change) and so on. Things seem grim. However Kieran pointed out that Marcel Mauss wrote his famous treatise on the gift in the aftermath of WW1 and the Spanish flu. A crisis or negative situation can be a catalyst for positive change.
Going by a Girardian account we are living with other contagions too, contagions of scapegoating and sacrifice. Kieran included some lovely art of Walter Benjamin above and an inspiring quote by him where he reflected that when big social change is happening that we must be sure to pay attention to the small things “[we] must try to be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations”. During large scale traumatic events like COVID-19 or the Spanish flu there are so many “big” things happening that it is difficult to zoom in and focus on the small things. Nevertheless these small changes are the stones which start an avalanche.
Girard famously taught Peter Thiel who took a great deal from his theories, and Thiel ended up having a significant influence on Trump.
This perspective that sacrifice is the social mechanism that regulates society can be useful – but also dangerous. Someone like Trump was not encouraged to govern well, but rather to keep searching for more and more scapegoats (foreigners, enemies, trans people, women, democrats etc. etc.). This unleashes a toxic cycle of violence.
For Mauss WW1 was an opportunity for positive change, not the end of things. Generosity, reciprocity and social solidarity can emerge in the most peculiar of situations, we are never completely trapped by hostility and violence.
Kieran took the opportunity to reflect on how E&S started this year, with a talk by Nidesh Lawtoo on ideas lying around. In his talk, Nidesh emphasised that mimesis can be a positive force as well as a negative one.
Wulf explains that while mimesis is reproductive it is not cloning. It does not create a duplicate or a perfect copy of the original. In creating this copy we can decide how it is changed or what form it takes. It need not reproduce and negativities in the original.
Adorno and Butler are two people who have reached celebrity status in academia (and particularly sociology). They have thought that it is too easy to focus on the negative and gloomy aspects of our culture, world and society.
Kieran then outlined the complex relationship between Casement and Conrad and how the former would tell the latter all sorts of nasty and unpleasant things. However Conrad would later think on the vital importance of being told things that you do not necessarily want to hear. Sometimes this honesty and perspective is essential.
Our culture and society is full of people who operate in bad faith. Agents of corruption and contagion who do nothing but reproduce negative mimetic accounts in an effort to stir up a frenzy of public dissent. Kieran brought up Ulysses – specifically the chapter with the nameless one who simply regurgitates the negative discourses of those he runs into. Negativity begets negativity.
In producing a more positive vision, Kieran encouraged us to think about FDR and the New Deal. Who brings about the New Deal? FDR often gets the credit but he was actually surrounded by many people including sociologists such as Francis Perkins who Kieran proposes became “President Whisperers”. Never underestimate the importance of a word in the ear of the powerful. The New Deal was incredibly successful and invigorated the American economy and society.
In our contemporary era we might think about people like AOC, Greta Thunberg and so on who could speak to power in a positive way. We are now in a serious crisis and require positive change and a Green New Deal would be ideal. Kieran closed his talk by bringing up the popular COVID-19 discourse that we need to “get back to normal”. For Kieran, it would be the worst possible idea for us to go back to exactly how things were. Not only is it not desirable, it is not possible, the world has been changed forever. But this is a moment where small changes can accumulate into big changes, and the future is full of potential and possibility – we owe it to ourselves to make it as good as possible.
Previous seminar: Angus Bancroft – Rationalities and Moral Economies in Illicit Drug Markets.
Next seminar: Damian O’Doherty – The Leviathan of Rationality.