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Title: Critique and neoliberalism's critics : art, activism, and uncertainty in post-recession Dublin
Author: Morningstar, Natalie Camille
ISNI:       0000 0004 8501 3379
Awarding Body: University of Cambridge
Current Institution: University of Cambridge
Date of Award: 2020
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This dissertation sets forth a call for an anthropology of forms of critique and critical thinking as a generative site for political anthropological theory, and itself offers an initial answer to that call. It makes its case from the ground up, originating in an ethnographic account of a group of contemporary critics in Dublin and how they understand and navigate the relationship between doubt, thought, and political action. In so doing, this dissertation grapples head on with the effects of non-neutral, critical orientations to theoretical and political knowledge on the 'factfulness' of ethnographic accounts. Its ethnographic focus is a group of leftist artist-activists in post-recession Dublin critical of the 'social turn' in contemporary art and urban development, and of how they understand and deal with uncertainty in the context of one of the EU's most speculative economies. In particular, I explore how they build alternative spaces and communities in often hidden and ad-hoc squats, studios, and collectives in the city; in their activist campaigns; and in their art acts and performances. I offer an account of how they broker complex critical relationships with the ideals and practices of liberalism, socialism, and anarchism alike, and leverage a kaleidoscopic toolkit of critical methods to interrogate and draw into question the legitimacy of what they describe as contemporary 'neoliberal' governance. Proceeding through five core ethnographic chapters, I trace a narrative of different forms and scales of uncertainty, and my interlocutors' political and moral-ethical relationships to them. I focus in turn on 1) how they understand and critically deploy various 'uses' of neoliberalism, as multivalent ethnographic concept, to take stock of the effects of urban restructuring; 2) their approach to the experimental spaces in which they work and organise; 3) their arts practice; 4) their activist strategies; and 5) their forms of self-presentation and relationships with their audiences and critics. The primary anthropological contribution this dissertation makes is to conversations about the relationship between neoliberalism, critique, and the political subject. The distinction these artists draw between art and activism is deployed as a window onto how they demarcate two different forms of critical thinking. Drawing on Marxist and Foucauldian readings of critique and neoliberalism, I explore how different degrees and kinds of uncertainty and detachment are abided in their art versus their activism, both of which are understood as potentially political. I suggest that my interlocutors confront a parallel dilemma to one routinely grappled with by the anthropologist of contemporary political movements and actually existing forms of critique: the question of whether detached objectivity is a barrier to political participation or a politics in its own right. These anthropological queries thus open out onto a broader sociological debate about what has been described as the current crisis of trust in liberal democracy, and especially of the relationship between deliberative debate, transparency, public trust, and political action. I suggest that the cynicism, skepticism, and withdrawal my interlocutors exhibit speaks to shifting understandings and expectations of the possibility for 'tolerance' and 'cosmopolitanism' in contemporary Euro-American liberal democratic contexts. Yet I also argue that these critics of neoliberalism teach us something timely about a core presupposition of liberal thought: that critique and deliberation can effectively bridge the perceived gap between private thought and collective political action.
Supervisor: Englund, Harri Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: neoliberalism ; critique ; political anthropology ; liberal democracy ; socialism ; activism ; art ; gentrification ; urban renewal ; capitalism ; urban anthropology ; built environment