Reading the State as a Multi-Identity Formation: The Touch and Feel of Equality Governance
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- Cooper, D. Fem Leg Stud (2011) 19: 3. doi:10.1007/s10691-011-9166-5
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How does a sense of touch, figuratively and practically, get deployed within equality governance, and to what questions and ways of thinking about the state does this direct us? Taking 2009–2010 as a snap-shot moment in the development of British equality reform—the year leading up to passage of the Equality Act 2010—this article explores the relationship between touch (the haptic) and equality governance from three angles. First, how have governmental bodies used touch language and imagery, including in geometrical representations of disadvantage? Second, what other, more challenging encounters and actions are imaginable; specifically, can touch mobilise the feeling state as a critical form of active citizenship? Third, what re-conceptualisations of the state does the touching, feeling state invoke, and with what effects? Specifically, does conceiving of the state as a multi-identity formation reframe the risks associated with a haptic state, thereby opening up new strategies for political action?
This article brings together two subjects conventionally kept well apart: sensory notions of touch and thinking about the state and governance. Of course it is untrue to say no intellectual connections or synergies exist. There are accounts of welfare professionals’ therapeutic touch, and accounts of state violence and coercion. However, what remains far less addressed is the route-way that touch (or “the haptic”) offers into thinking about state practices and state form at a more conceptual level. What also remains less addressed is the possibility, and it is only a possibility, of a benign form of state touch beyond the diagnostic and healing hand.
In this article, my aim is twofold: to explore state practice and form as refracted through the sense of touch; and to do so focusing on state practice when at its most ostensibly progressive, when it represents itself as concerned with equality and social justice. My aim is not to celebrate progressive state action or, conversely, to show it is invariably injurious or deceitful. Rather, I want to think about the ways governance discourses and actions get conceived and rendered intelligible through touch’s language, imagery, expectations and ethoi, and to consider what possibilities this opens up for more radical political action. My empirical terrain is Britain’s governmental equality programme, as documented and perceived during one snap-shot year—2009–2010. In this year, the bill that became the Equality Act (EA) 2010 passed through Parliament: the high water mark of anti-discrimination reform in Britain to date.
The Equality Bill 2009 promised a major overhaul of the massive, entangled canopy of British anti-discrimination law. Its focus was seven “protected characteristics”, otherwise governmentally referred to as “grounds” or “strands”—sex, race, gender reassignment, age, disability, religion and belief, and sexual orientation. Alongside addressing the more traditional terrain of direct and indirect discrimination, the EA 2010 (as passed) offered, from a British perspective, several innovative features. These included: intersectional recognition, albeit in attenuated form as the “combination of two relevant characteristics” (s. 14); an equality promoting duty on public bodies (s. 149); legalised positive action (s. 158); and a duty on public bodies to have regard to the desirability of reducing inequalities of outcome from socio-economic disadvantage (s. 1). But equality governance, during this period, also involved more than new law. There were the national equality bodies1: the Government Equalities Office (GEO); the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) (a non-departmental public body tasked, alongside its human rights brief, with promoting, shaping, monitoring, and enforcing equality across specified grounds); and NGOs, such as the Equality and Diversity Forum and the English Regions Equality Network, alongside a plethora of local organisations.2 And assembling these bodies were inter-agency techniques of governance, political fantasies of equality, and the language, texture and sensations, as I shall discuss, of a developing political programme.
To write about British equality governance in the last months of 2010 is a dispiriting endeavour, given that within weeks of the Equality Bill becoming law, the Labour government of 13 years was replaced by a Conservative-led coalition. While the Conservative administration has brought into force, at time of writing, certain EA 2010 provisions, it has made it clear that others, such as the socio-economic equality duty, will be “scrapped”.3 Meanwhile many government funded equality bodies face uncertain futures. With international financial crises and the slashing of domestic welfare provision submerging social justice and equality agendas, autumn 2010 is a strange time to be writing about the touch of equality governance. However, even at moments (and perhaps especially at moments) of retrenchment, when progressive forces’ relationship to the state become largely one of resistance, it is salutary to consider what part the state can play in development of more progressive politics. In part, this is because it encourages us to avoid a reductionist, unitary reading of the state; in part also understanding the state as a multifaceted, often contradictory entity makes it possible to think about, and engage with, the state in ways that extend beyond blocking and opposing. In Thatcherite Britain, one form such counter-hegemony took was alliance, bringing together municipal and social movement politics, as urban local government provided the terrain for a left-wing shadow state (see also Lansley et al. 1989). How such engagement might configure now, 25 years later, remains unclear. Nevertheless, even as something of an equality hiatus is experienced in Britain, the themes explored in this article are hopefully relevant also to other jurisdictions where equality governance is being initiated or pursued.
Thinking About Touch
Over recent decades, an important and influential body of work has explored the relationship between state practices and the senses. One such area concerns the governmentalisation of smell. Specifically, work has explored how governments approach odour through social welfare and planning, projects intimately connected to historically changing understandings of individuality, space, class and governmental responsibilities (see Corbin 1986; Stallybrass and White 1986; Curtis 2008). Nevertheless, the most researched sense in relation to political power is sight. From what can be seen or looked at, to regulating through sight, academic work is replete with analyses of vision’s power (e.g., Feldman 1997). Such power of looking does not just focus on humans as targets. As James Scott (1998) explores, in Seeing like a State, the imperative to see swiftly, and from a distance, has also generated major governance techniques from cadastral maps and metric standardisation to new forms of forestry management. Optic governance is largely asymmetrical but it is not one-way. Thus, alongside state sight are practices which allow publics and populations, in turn, to see (and thereby help to consolidate) the nation-state. This visual production of nation-statehood has generated a vibrant series of writings examining metonymic practical displays, from landscaping, memorials, statues, and flags to body surgery and national commemorative festivals (see Billig 1995; Roy 2006; Grabham 2009a).
Touch is inherently reciprocal; unlike senses, such as sight, touching always engages being touched. This may take symmetrical shape as in the idea of two hands or lips touching (Irigaray 1985); however, in other contexts, bi or multilateral sensations of touch may radically differ (see also Derrida 2005, p. 170).
Touching involves proximity, often intimacy. In contrast to sight which can manage a degree of distance (indeed states use visual techniques to govern from a distance), touch closes space. Mbembe (2003, p. 37) explores the power of proximity in relation to suicide bombing, a technique which depends on coming as near as possible to the body of the enemy. At the same time, contact (or touch) can communicate distance and otherness—as Josipovici (1996) explores in relation to pilgrimage. Thus, he (1996, p. 69) writes, “For if the goal of pilgrimage was, and is, to make distance palpable, is that not still an instinct with us today? …Is not the secular visitor… who touches the age-old stones or the ocean… not so much bridging the distance between himself [sic] and these repositories of power as acknowledging their otherness and the awe he feels in their presence?”
Importantly, for what follows, touch involves inward as well as outward-oriented action; thus it incorporates intra-corporeal processes such as balance, movement, and proprioception (a felt sense of moving body parts location). While some writing emphasises the distinction between inward and outward touch, other work focuses on porosity, blending (including with the physical environment), and an enfolding or invagination which moves fluidly and contingently between inside and out (Paterson 2007; Obrador Pons 2009).
While it can thwart or contest hierarchy, touch conventionally confirms relations of power. Such invocations may involve violence, but touch can signify authority in other ways –a child’s hand grabbed to cross a busy road, the employer’s heavy avuncular pat on the shoulder, the healing power of the royal hand (Thomas 2005).
Finally, touch suggests a particular kind of knowledge and knowing. According to Kevin Hetherington (2003, p. 1935), and here he draws on Cooper and Law (1995), touch invokes “proximal knowledge”—unfinished, approximate, embodied, relational and precarious.
In this article, I draw on these five idea clusters to explore state touch when allied with (and constituted through) a seemingly progressive political agenda. Thus, in contrast to feminist work which treats touch, particularly the violent touch of men, as something to regulate or to prohibit, my focus is on touch as a mode of governance (or way of governing). However, unlike work which centres physical modes of rule (for instance, war, capital punishment, or the violence of state prohibition), my focus is touch as a linguistic register and governmental ethos. In Foucauldian terms, I am interested in how touch works as a productive rather than just repressive power—even as it often combines both.4
I should emphasise, however, that I am not claiming touch has replaced sight or smell as the new technology of governing or state project. Not only is touch a very old means of governing, it draws in varying ways on specific connections to other senses, as my discussion below reveals. Nevertheless, focusing on touch directs us to aspects of state practice and form, which other frameworks, including other sensory ones, miss (or minimise). To put it another way, touch establishes certain (institutional) connections and relationships, even as it downplays others. As an analytical lens, touch foregrounds propinquity (and distance), reciprocity (although not necessarily symmetry), texture, embodied depth, and the quality of connections or interactions. Thus, it goes to the heart of thinking about state/society relations and boundaries. But touch isn’t just a conceptual term imported to refract institutional practice in illuminating ways. Thinking about touch also takes seriously government’s own language and imagery, in which talk about touch suggests openness, sensitivity, complexity and multiplicity even as institutional touch often functions otherwise.
Touch is an intensely polysemic term. With its various synonyms in play—from contact to feeling—it covers a lot of ground. In the discussion that follows, I move from touch as a lexicon identifying relations of contact between governmental (and other) bodies, to the contact performed between geometrically representational lines, to its application as an affective framework of feeling, and finally to touch’s practical and conceptual value in rethinking the assembled state. Some of these usages may seem more figurative than real. But, this distinction is also open to question given the range of bodies and organs (in/tangible, human and otherwise) that intersect and converge in equality governance—from public apparatuses, community organisations, and corporations, to social groupings and classes, individuals, conceptual models, legal structures, and state identities. Without drawing explicitly on corporeal notions of the body politic (e.g., see Rasmussen and Brown 2005), I am interested in exploring what touch can mean when it involves diverse forms of organisational and political life.
The Language of Touch in Equality Governance
In exploring touch as a technique of governance that gives shape to the state alongside, and through, the shaping of its objects, knowledge, and relationships, my starting-point is language. Specifically, I am interested in the language of contact and touch as it circulated through governmental documents between 2009 and 2010. The prevalence of haptic terms and ideas here is striking. Governmental equality texts are replete with references to soft touch, hard to reach, treatment, balance, tackling and so on. While such terminology might be dismissed as everyday figurative speech, the language of touch is far from neutral. Not only does it have effects (discursive and practical), but it also seems calculated to perform particular tasks. To consider this further, I explore some ways touch as contact was used to articulate relations and practices of equality governance. While the documents drawn upon mainly come from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and Government Equalities Office (GEO), my analytical focus is on governance as an interconnected structure of touching bodies.
Reading policy documents, legislative guidance, bills and other grey matter, one striking feature is the attention, almost anxious attention, directed towards those framed as disadvantaged. At one level, there is nothing new here. Governmental projects, as Corbin (1986) usefully reminds us, have often been sensitised and oriented to the lives and acts of the destitute and poor. Reformers relentlessly scrutinise their actions, identifying improvements, in ways that would prove far more politically awkward if imposed and required of ruling classes. However, that history is not explicitly mobilised within equality governance. British government and policy-makers’ enduring tendency to present themselves as impactful—that now is the moment when a new strategy (one that will succeed) has arrived—means equality governance’s explicit focus on disadvantaged individuals and groups, that is those individuals and groups bearing “protected characteristics”, becomes a strategy without history, unlinked to older strategies to manage, through bio-political means, the welfare of the poor and deviant.
By contrast, equality governance heralds a new project for attention, with touch predicated on sight; contact anchored in transparency. The GEO declares, “[I]nequality cannot be tackled if problems cannot be seen”.5 What must be seen here are “the needs of different groups; women, disabled, older people, ethnic minorities …LGB&T”.6 And at its apex, where sight and touch converge, is the “hard to reach” group—a term previously used for lesbians and gay men, but frequently now used for minority ethnic women.7 Equality governance seeks proximity, to make contact with those who elude institutional scrutiny and incorporation in ways resonant with Cruikshank’s (1994) account of the 1960s US “War on Poverty”. At the same time, as with Josipovici’s discussion of secular relics, depiction as hard to reach suggests a literal intangibility—of constituencies tantalisingly just beyond the boundaries of governmental order.
And yet, successful or not, touching the targets of equality governance involves governmental bodies in several relays. Touch may be associated with immediacy, but as a governmental practice it gets extended across space and time as a wide array of (intermediary) bodies are mobilised—NGOs, private companies, public providers and regulators. Forming a kind of “touch-chain”, equality governance works prosthetically, stretching out, with increasing power, as a result of the bodies knitted in. Equality governance both demands and incites action among the bodies it has incorporated. We can read this demand as a kinaesthetic one; as organised bodies, urged into action, are compelled to bring their interior bodies into line with audits, surveys, and policy impact assessments. Yet, governmental texts largely promise a “light touch”. The Equality Act Impact Assessment, for instance, declares in relation to the once planned, statutory socio-economic duty, there will be no threat of “heavy handed enforcement”.8
Governmental touch is also two-way. As well as the reciprocating, if asymmetrical, touch between public bodies (including the touch sensations an organisational body feels when it itself touches), equality governance declares a need to be touched by the disadvantaged other. There are echoes here of aura—the power of certain objects to touch those beholding them (see Josipovici 1996; also Hetherington 2003, p. 1940). For equality governance, this invokes registers of voice and hearing, combined to comprise a political aesthetics of sound. In their 2009-2012 Strategic Plan, the EHRC comment, “We tell people’s stories—and we learn from them. We listen and we deal with the world as it is” (p. 14). Governance texts are clear—those with “protected characteristics” are experts of their experience. They must be “consulted”9 and their words listened to (although, in some cases, even this may prove insufficient. Then, something more is needed, and documents speak of “involvement”10—a meshing of bodies that exceeds the bounded, temporally linear, often one-way communication, which consultation entails).
Inner Sensation and Disavowal
The touching distress of the disadvantaged raises an issue central to touch scholarship, that of inner sensation. On occasion, state bodies draw attention to their “innards”, usually in relation to leftover effects of previous administrations—including bloating, bad emissions, even dyspepsia. Mostly, however, feelings arising from internal systems remain unremarked upon. We can see this in relation to the economy. Equality governance repeatedly hails business as a key partner, audience and judgment criteria, a sector that must not be weighed down by too much weight or pressure (see Dickens 2007). Yet, the “interoceptive” power of the market economy, that is its power as an internal force to stimulate and shape equality governance—bringing forth flurries of somatic sensations and effects—of movement, disorientation, rebalance, fatigue, aches, and uncertainty—remained in the EA 2010 lead-up, far less remarked upon.
This interoceptive silence parallels a similar muteness towards other internally structuring systems of power. While the disadvantaged are externalised as problems calling for relief, race, gender and sexuality, for instance, are not perceived as systemically (and internally) shaping state regimes. This silence also embraces those externalised dominant subject positions. Equality governance’s bracketing of masculinity, whiteness, and heterosexuality—at least in official statements—is significant and highly noticeable. There are some exceptions, particularly when dominant characteristics get linked to under-representation—male primary school teachers,11 for instance, or where they combine with other social relations to denote alienation and underachievement—such as, in EHRC chair Trevor Phillips's words, “the growing underclass of poor white boys”.12 Yet, mostly, dominant social locations remain unmarked and unremarked upon.
Leaving powerful attachments outside equality governance is common-place. Indeed, such attachments may really prove the hardest to reach characteristics within state equality projects, erased from discussion, bracketed from lines of attention, in ways that orient equality governance away from both culpability and power.13 Inequality is, here, a problem without origin or beneficiary, and equality has become a governmental project promising benefits to all, not a distributive recalibration in which the shares of some will contract. Yet, non-subordinates do get contacted in another guise: as the unmarked universal class comprising equality’s political audience. Contemporary equality governance aligns the credibility, legitimacy and future of its agenda with touching this broader, proto-sceptical public. As a result, various venues, spaces, arenas and relays get utilised—from the Conservative press to ventures such as the EHRC’s summer camp for youth “champions”14—to render amenable, over a temporally extended “now”, public opinion’s easily worked-up surface.
[D]istal knowledge…generally implies a broad, detached understanding based on knowledge at a distance… [it] is largely established through representational practices…in which the “thing” being known is assumed to be in a stable and finished state… there is a clear distinction between subject and object as singular and coherent entities. (Hetherington 2003, pp. 1934–1935)
Similarly detached representative practices are evident in geometric understandings of inequality—the social enterprise, Olmec’s pie-chart “diversity wheel” being one example.17 At the heart of such ‘inequality geometry’ is the idea of different strands, grounds, diversity dimensions or “protected characteristics”. Leaving to one side their ‘border’ with each other (represented by Olmec as contiguous pie slices), I want to pursue a little further how the ontology of such “characteristics” (to use EA 2010 language) is generally conceived. With the exception of gender reassignment and disability, protected characteristics are framed symmetrically (men and women, heterosexuals and homosexuals etc.). Nevertheless, they are glued to disadvantage. The stickiness of discrimination, as a legal category, is single-sided—it sticks to groups who suffer. Inequality is rarely tied to having too much, and anti-discrimination law has no place for the altruistic claimant who seeks through legal action to undo their privileged status. Yet if inequality adheres to particular groups, how does it happen? For the most part, inequality is not seen to reside within protected characteristics, a seed that emanates from the bursting or splitting of gender, race or sexuality, like the dehiscence Vasseleu (1998, p. 26) discusses. Sex, for instance, here, is not intrinsically, definitionally, and necessarily unequal. But if it isn’t, how is the contact between characteristic and inequality understood?
Equality governance documents suggest a relationship imagined according to three parts. Here, (1) history, an irrational present, repetitive institutional action, and “lack of ambitions and expectations”,18 constitute (2) the cement or force, that (3) variously attaches penalties to characteristics, leads people along second rate pathways, or places barriers and obstacles in their way. What is striking about this three-part connection is that despite the different understandings at work, inequality is repeatedly depicted as severable from contemporary social life. Abstract geometries translate inequality into a problem of anachronistic fit; lacking a contemporary proper place, inequality identifies a set of practices that can be extracted from the social, leaving the rest of life intact.
This understanding also intersects representations of equality. Equality slides between its institutional and legal machinery; the “fair deal for everyone” environment;19 and the individual able to flourish, through acquiring the necessary capabilities. The interconnected character of these aspects is evident in the EHRC Strategic Plan 2009–2012, which describes itself as “charged with helping create a society where people can live their lives to the full” (p. 12). Once inequality has been extracted, equality can be nurtured, along lines already modelled through a geometry of extension. Here, societal and economic action enable individuals to fulfil and fill full the spatial container of their lives, stretching the notion of what counts as a full life, even as the gap is plugged between a life that’s lived and a life that’s possible.
Active Citizenship and the Feeling State
So far, I have focused on mainstream equality governance—its fashioning of relations, self and knowledge through the language and imagery of touch as contact. Despite touch’s associations with proximity, openness, reciprocality, and sensation as Kevin Hetherington (2003) has explored, in the context of equality governance touch seems far more tied to pressure levels, institutional capture, mediating agencies, mainstream legitimacy, and geometric, representational forms.
Given the state-centric focus of this discussion, to imagine contact otherwise may seem wildly naive. However, one aim of this article is to use touch to think about the state (or at least the possibilities it opens up) in ways that avoid polarising the state as either fundamentally malign or benign. Therefore, in the discussion that follows, I want to move from the reading just offered to possibilities for more transformative and challenging action within the state. I therefore make three switches. First, I move from locating equality governance within a networked set of interconnected, agentic bodies to situating it within a governmental terrain, across which action happens. Second, I shift from reading touch as contact to reading it as feeling. Third, I reorient my discussion away from the haptic language and geometric figures of institutional texts to address instead how touch as feeling can operate as institutional ethoi, mobilised by, and read off, state located practice. Specifically, I ask, what would it mean for governmental forces to mobilise the state as an entity that “feels”? In the final section I ask, would this be desirable?
Re-Imagining Active Citizenship
Labour government social policy, developing from where the Tories, in 1997, left off, took up the terminology of “active citizenship” to express several interconnected ideas: that belonging to the nation-state meant responsibilities as well as entitlements; that citizens should be participating members of their communities; and that society flourished when people gave something back (see generally Kearns 1995; Marinetto 2003). While critical scholars have tended to reject “active citizenship”, objecting to the way it has been conceptualised, I am interested in the possibilities recuperating the term opens up. My use, however, deliberately resituates active citizenship away from the obedient, service-oriented community member to those engaged in agonistic politics (see also Cooper 2006). Thus, the term, as I use it, combines different ways of thinking about citizenship in order to highlight less visible, and less regularised, practices of state activism. By naming and framing these practices it becomes possible to identify developments for political action which don’t place the state’s organisational terrain off-limits (Cooper 1996).
My focus is those actors and political projects that penetrate through, or assemble within, the state.20 Framed as activities rather than subject identities, they constitute ways of “doing” citizenship to the extent three conditions are met: that they engage with the terms of social belonging—a focus that extends to environmental politics and immigration as well as workers’ rights; that activity is anchored (implicitly or otherwise) in political values and commitments beyond the role-based conventions governing actors’ status; and that entitlements, expertise, and resources (of role or position) are drawn upon to effect change. Active (or an enacted) citizenship is, in short, a kind of meta-citizenship, constituted relationally and as interactive. It is characterised by activities and outcomes which trouble, contradict, accentuate or exploit existing institutional practices, game-rules, norms, conventions and role.21 In contrast to institutional practice which follows established pathways, active citizenship opens up new ways of playing. This may target the presence or absence of a particular initiative, idea or strategy, but it often involves contesting the lines drawn between what is visible or invisible, intensified or slowed down, extended or minimised. Characterising active citizenship in this way draws on discussion of agonistic or dissident citizenship—“the practices of marginalized citizens who publicly contest prevailing arrangements of power by means of oppositional democratic practices” (Sparks 1997, p. 75; see also Tully 1999; Chandler 2000). However, commentators tend to situate such democratic practices outside rather than within the state. And it is the latter which is central to my argument here.
In British municipal governance of the 1980s, active citizenship by local council officials was highly visible. Drawing on registers of chutzpah and confrontation as well as more covert, strategic action, active citizenship challenged the boundaries of what was permissible to promote controversial political agendas, such as, then, gay rights (see Cooper 1994). But that was the 1980s. For the era discussed here, active citizenship, particularly in its less ruly registers, proved far less evident. At the same time, some glimpses exist of “extra-official” acts and omissions, often driven by community group and NGO penetration or “push back”. I want to draw loosely on such instances to explore, as a tentative proposition, what active citizenship in this more contemporary climate might entail. More specifically, how might it enact feeling, as a “minor stream” ethos of state equality governance? My discussion focuses on three aspects: feeling your way, feelings, and touch-based learning.
Feeling Your Way
Feeling your way suggests tentative action—less concerned with following a path that’s visible and known, than with moving slowly along, trying to remain sensitive and responsive, even as (and perhaps because) the journey involves unexpected routes and unanticipated obstacles. In practice, governments often “feel their way”.22 However, as an explicit epistemological stance, it tends to clash with governments’ autonomic emphasis on certainty, illustrated in the EHRC 2009–2012 Strategic Plan, “Our role is to create a strong vision, to transform culture and influence thought” (p. 20).
In considering active citizenship, one important kind of way-feeling concerns inequality’s meaning and location. This isn’t simply about sourcing more data to determine when and where women or disabled people, for instance, experience disadvantage. As way-feeling, it also suggests a more exploratory, flexible approach, to ascertaining which inequalities matter where, and what it is that actually coheres when inequality is identified. This does not mean current grounds of inequality should be demoted. However, way-feeling might involve letting go of the compulsion to attach inequality to identity-based groups (even to groups at all) in order to recognise inequality’s more systemic character. It might mean reading inequality as a problem of practices, spaces, and ways of living, as I have explored elsewhere through the example of nudism (Cooper 2011). Or it might mean really recognising how contingent is the list of “grounds”, as other inequalities emerge as social facts, or as political claims that resemble—or significantly may not—those inequalities already officially recognised.
Certainly, something of a way-feeling approach is suggested in the EHRC’s Equality Measurement Framework, in its recognition that indicators may change (p. 404), and in its concerns that insufficient data exists for categories, such as Gypsies and Travellers, homeless people, prisoners and others. Whether this is usefully read as an instance of active citizenship might depend on the rationale for keeping the categories of disadvantage open—scientific accuracy or political commitment. It might also depend on the balance struck between the drive to measure, and the challenge that openness and contingency bring to quantification’s value. Indeed, this might be an instance where active citizenship is more associated with conservative forces who challenge the value of social categories, in the face of equality governance’s orientation towards helping those identified and grouped through a classificatory structure of disadvantage. Active citizenship, as way-feeling, is not inherently progressive, and it may involve a conservative assertion of universal interests—the general public—against a more differentiated approach.
But what way-feeling does stress is a governmental willingness to acknowledge mistakes and failures, to be ready to change, to take risks recognising some will fail, and to encourage others to guide. In other words, this is a state mobilised around different kinds of expression. This takes us to the second conception of feeling invoked, namely, affect or emotional response. Sara Ahmed (2004), amongst others, has extensively explored the circulation of feelings and their effects. Ahmed’s work challenges the assumption that emotions come from within and move out, arguing instead that emotions gather, impress upon, and shape subjects. Here, I want briefly to consider how active citizenship might produce different strains of state affect.
Mainstream equality governance, and the bodies through which it is produced, do not reveal an absence of articulated emotion. Central to equality governance’s game has been the production of a buoyant sense of progress. Thus, a report from the Department for Communities and Local Government echoes several in stating, “Over the last 60 years there have been landmark improvements in addressing the starkest aspects of inequality and discrimination.”23 But up against such confidence, what might active citizenship entail? It could invoke other feelings. It might also engage the state in feelings of implication. This is something, that in other contexts, several national governments have turned to, including Britain,24 responding to prior (and recent) histories of persecution and state excess through the formalised, official expression of shame, regret, and apology.
However problematic such expressions might prove, a striking feature of mainstream equality governance in the period studied is the paucity of such feeling. Far from producing shame or apology, mainstream equality has generated the reverse. Equality governance repeatedly locates itself within a historical lineage of constant values: tolerance, equality, fairness and human rights—values depicted as stable themes in the continuing expression of British national identity. Thus, EHRC Chair, Trevor Phillips, wrapped the Magna Carta and habeas corpus into a narrative of national continuity in commenting, “The principles which continue to provide the essential character of the relationship between individuals and the state … fairness, respect, equality, dignity and autonomy—have been developed and enriched in Britain over the centuries”.25
Glimpses of other feelings, including annoyance, frustration and crossness, are nonetheless apparent. These feelings speak to interior cleavages and a more emotionally contactful state terrain, where feeling isn’t simply a symbolic form of political expression but entwined in practical forms of political mobilisation. I want to illustrate this point with a report from the EHRC on Cohesion and Equality. I read this report in the course of reading dozens of similar documents, and two things about it stood out. The first was its explicit signalling and pinpointing of “mistaken” thinking and “counterproductive” policies by local authorities (p. 4). The second was its directive clarity in instructing local authorities how to act. This isn’t to criticise the report. Rather, I was struck by how different (how more everyday) its tone seemed to the grandiosity or detached neutrality that frequently characterises governmental documents. The report concerned funding of domestic violence services; it argued funders needed to recognise that targeted provision through “female only” or “race” based groups might prove more effective than only funding ostensibly universal provision. It stated, “Having an inflexible approach that assumes it is better to fund mainstream services rather than single-issue groups isn’t the right approach to begin with… In the end, the effects of such flawed decision-making only serve to bolster the barriers to well-being, participation and equality experienced by disadvantaged women… particularly hard to reach groups, such as ethnic minority women”.26 In this example, the production of unexpectedly “un-stately” feeling might be linked back to effective NGO action, more specifically to anti-racist feminism’s penetration of, and partial incorporation by, the state, including in its legal form. For this report followed the successful legal challenge of Ealing council’s decision to cease funding the long-established community organisation, Southall Black Sisters, to provide domestic violence services.27 Thus, we might read the Commission’s guidance documentation as an expression of active citizenship, given shape and life by the relays of pressure, dissent, feminist politics, and judicial decision-making at several interconnected scales.
Feeling What Lies Before
Reading the enactment of state-based emotion as a mediated effect of social movement pressure takes me to a third kind of feeling—attuned sensitivity. What this emphasises, in contrast to touch’s common-sense usage, is a giving oneself over to what is felt. This does not necessarily mean merging. Indeed, high levels of attention may be premised upon separation, where feeling is performed in order to understand the unfamiliar, even as something may be rendered unfamiliar or strange as a result of haptic forms of slow, detailed encounter.
As attuned sensitivity, active citizenship from within the state could entail several things: feeling the texture, tensions, heat, and shape of injustice; probing and palpating the assembled parts that comprise injustice; feeling the ongoing shape left by the state on a social justice politics oriented to undoing inequality; and being attentive to the different ways different inequalities operate. In relation to this last, mainstream equality governance’s difficulties have proved particularly evident. Its abstract geometry of “protected characteristics”, and Venn diagram approach to intersectionality, invite the suggestion different strands of inequality involve the same kind of thing. Government bodies may reject a “one size fits all” approach, but to the extent this avoids fragmenting into a depoliticised individualism, it tends towards a policy jigsaw of inequality “hot spots”: black teenage boys and school, Asian women and employment, for instance. Certainly glimpses can be seen of a more systemically nuanced approach—including by single-strand organisations, such as the EHRC’s predecessor commissions (Choudhury 2006; Squires 2009). But historically, differentiation between inequalities has been too tied up with constituency agendas in prioritising or signalling the special character of their oppression. Caught between sameness and hierarchically organised difference, public policy-making has inadequately attended to other ways of understanding inequalities’ differences28 or to the traces left by the historically changing ways in which inequalities cohere.
“Feeling” inequality suggests a temporally extended approach, attentive to the weight, texture and sharpness of inequalities as they emerge and change, to the relational aspect of feeling (how the state that feels affects what is felt), and to the temporal staying power of attentiveness—feeling isn’t a one-shot touch. But aside from the contested question of what should be felt, and the “against the grain” possibility that this might be the shape and dynamics of organised society, its logics of exploitation and domination, rather than individuals and groups, does feeling inequality posit a benign state coming in close? Does it involve a state moving in with its population, in order to sense experiences beyond its own institutionally embodied encounters, whether this is the weight of social trauma’s legacy or the richness of community life generated through inhospitable conditions?
And so, in posing feeling, feelings and feeling one’s way as potentially transformational means of enacting equality governance, a central question surfaces. Do we want a feeling state? Even if no more than a minor stream ethos mobilised across and through the state’s terrain, is feeling, to put it bluntly, what states should do? Are states too powerful, forceful and domineering as places from which to feel, and to express feelings safely? Would we want the state, and its forces, as close as they would need to be to feel attentively, even if their feelings were critical ones? And if, conversely, attentive feeling is to be tentative, is such way-feeling a luxury? What’s risked when state forces problematise and complicate accepted understandings of inequality? Is it important for state practice to express certainty and confidence in its knowledge, aspirations and outlook, to be more than a “soft touch”?29
Questions like these repeatedly surface when critical commentators and activists consider the state and what they want from it. Indeed, opponents of the “therapeutic state”, such as James Nolan (1998), underpin their attack with the claim that feeling has replaced rationality and objectivity in state discourse and action. Yet, aside from the empirical and normative problems of such a charge, arguments that the state should remain distant, limited and neutral beg much. In particular, they risk forgetting the fact that the state is not a tangible entity we can agree upon knowing (and collectively feel). It is not a physical body or thing but a concept—even as its conceptualisation continues to be generated (and re-generated) by the historic and spatialised assembly of physical and material parts in conjunction with discursive and imagined ones. What it means for the state to get close, to touch society’s organisation, populations, and be felt by them, depends (although not entirely) on how the state is conceptualised, a process which also shapes and renders intelligible where the boundaries of the state are deemed to lie. In this final discussion, then, I want to approach state touch, contact and feeling from a third angle: one that builds on earlier work addressing the state as a multi-identity formation (Cooper and Monro 2003).
Feeling, Contact and the Multi-Identity State
Identity is not a concept much used by state scholars. Nevertheless, conventional perspectives characterise the state in terms of several related identity dimensions. Following Max Weber’s (2005) well known and influential claim that the key distinguishing feature of the modern state is its monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory, academics have variously placed territorial sovereignty, networked apparatuses, guarantor of social order, exclusive right to legitimate organised violence, and representative of the nation at the heart of their understandings of what comprises a state. More critical readings, Marxist and feminist ones, for instance, have highlighted other state identities. These include managing the appropriation and distribution of resources, facilitating capitalism, and condensing social power. While many theorists often foreground a particular state identity (or cluster)—whether framed as functions, powers (or technologies), responsibilities, project or form—social identity theory, imported from feminist scholarship, provides a helpful way of conceptualising the complex, changing mix of relational and socially constituted elements that together make up the state, described by Mann (1993) as a “polymorphous crystallization”.
As with the social composition of personhood, thinking about state identities precipitates certain questions. These include the relationship between interconnection and inter-formation, doing and being, appearing and performing, and between those identities readily presented or perceived, whether by the subject or others, and those uncovered (or unmasked) through critical (some might say “paranoid”) readings and engagements. But how does thinking about the state’s multiple “identities”—and I include, in the term “identities”, those refused or declined identifications that nevertheless constitute the state relationally in different fields of violence, legitimacy, rule, bodies etc.—help us to assess the touching state as expressed and given shape through equality governance? Does thinking about the state in this way clarify the value of an active citizenship that uses state power to feel differently; does it at least illuminate what such feeling might entail?
Mainstream equality governance may be readily criticised on Marxist or Foucauldian grounds for aligning social justice with the augmenting of state power and dominant interests. Still, as a political project, equality governance suggests some limited changes, at least in how state identities are inflected. These include building on the state’s self-identified role as a referee ensuring fair play—illustrated by a somewhat remarkable statement from the Department of Community and Local Government, “government is committed to making sure, in every community, in every corner of this country, people know we are on their side. No favours. No privileges. No special interest groups. Just fairness”.30 Equality governance also enunciates a somewhat rebalanced body politic, with the state’s coercive work shunted to the margins as security, military projects, immigration and penality are produced, to varying degrees, and in varying ways, as outside equality governance’s remit.
Of course, equality governance’s constitution of the state as referee or benign producer of social justice and the public good can be interpreted as dangerous window-dressing, masking the state’s coercive functions as well as equality governance’s incapacity to tackle them. Conversely, if not window dressing, equality governance can be seen as flimsy and temporary—introducing light-weight changes in the state’s dominant identity, changes quickly trumped by other priorities, especially when “times get tough”. Perhaps, then, the most striking (and durable) way equality governance inflects state identities is in relation to modes of intra-state rule, with concomitant effects on determining where the boundaries of the chain-linked state are deemed to lie. Equality governance certainly draws on vertical techniques of monitoring, requirement, and judgment, but it is weighted towards horizontal, enabling modes of contact—encouragement, partnership, contract, training, and modelling. Thus, it resonates with wider shifts in inter-organisational state relations (e.g., see Clarke and Newman 1997; Newman 2001, 2007)—variously explored and conceptualised as policy networks, the “hollowed out” state, and governing at a distance (Rhodes 1994; Rose 1996).
So, it would seem, despite flourishing use of touch language and imagery, mainstream equality governance has not given birth to a new “touchy-feely” state. But is this a risk with the feeling state of active citizenship proposed? Even as a governmental minor stream, such feeling might appear to foreground new state identities. But are such identities intrusive and over-extended? Do they dangerously function as a sweetened gateway through which critical and disadvantaged social forces get attached to more coercive, hierarchical and authoritarian state parts?
The anxieties underpinning such questions are reasonable in the light of essentialist state approaches—where violence, coercion, and dominant economic interests are identified at the state’s core. I don’t want to deny these qualities are enduring features of modern liberal states. Nevertheless, I want to retain a more open understanding of what states can be, while also acknowledging the progressive elements of some contemporary state practices. Of course these may, at times, bolster and protect more oppressive state functions, but this is not a foregone conclusion. Rather, it is something that needs producing and mobilising. It can therefore be challenged, attenuated or undone. I want to end with one approach to this undoing—based on the premise of a “thinned out” state.
Contemporary state power tends to come from, and be augmented by, the tight articulations between state identities. So, state coercion and violence are controlled by state bodies, linked together through particular hierarchical, state mandated, modes of authority. But what happens if these dimensions get decoupled so that they do not cohere to produce a thick, powerful entity? One oft-cited contemporary example is privatisation—whether of utilities, welfare services, security or military (e.g., see Mbembe 2003, p. 31), where ‘state’ functions are performed by non-public bodies, whose primary goals and interests are commercial, who can be domiciled beyond the state’s territory, and who may be inadequately controlled through vertical modes of public rule. Privatisation suggests a thinned out state antithetical to equality agenda, but thinning out can have other, more progressive, effects. Steinberg (1994, p. 464), for instance, explores the political potential of territory that overhangs (or extends beyond) the state’s governance power; “Margins are spaces which are within the territorial structures of the world-economy but where the intensive reach of the power network is incomplete”. 1980s British municipal socialism saw a similar “thinning out”, as the Labour Left used local councils to advance agendas antithetical to central government, including equality, democracy, environmentalism and workers’ rights (e.g., Lansley et al. 1989). Whether mainstream equality governance, even at its height in 2009–2010, represents another instance of a thinned out state is debatable. Certainly, some scholars worried over such trends, concerned it reduced the vital linkages between equality as a project and governmental modes of power (Squires and Wickham-Jones 2002, p. 67). But does the thinned out state have unrealised political mileage when thinking through the dilemma of a (partially) feeling state?
Located within the thick state of liberal modernity, feeling as a state ethos brings a whole raft of problems as I have suggested. Fundamentally, it appears too dominating. Whether state power is mobilised to feel people, objects, inequality, emotions or its own way, it seems too heavy and powerful not to destroy, radically transform or upset those things felt in its wake. To argue for a weaker state is well trodden ground within libertarian and anarchist writing, but it is not my argument. Indeed, eliminating or weakening particular state identities might not diminish state power or authority overall. It could lead to multiple (quasi-)states with different identities coexisting; ditching certain state identities could protect or augment others; and the decoupling or withering of identities may simply reflect emergent newly dominating interests and projects (see Hansen and Stepputat 2001, p. 30). Even privatisation, with its mobilisation of individual responsibility, profitability and commercial involvement, cannot be seen unequivocally as supporting a declining state thesis.
Rather, my argument is that feeling, as a register of active citizenship, allows us to think about extending specific state identities, pulling them away (stretching them out) from the coordinated, interconnected panoply of the thick state. Thus, we can imagine the state’s welfare identity becoming drawn towards the enhancement of communities’ sensual pleasure, displacing or minimising current welfare trends towards work, security, and risk, in ways that loosen or overhang the ties between welfare and disciplinary techniques of rule. Similarly, the state’s pedagogical function could be stretched towards reflecting on political, ethical and conceptual uncertainties in ways that challenge, or move outside of, the conventional relationship between state pedagogy and the state’s identity as regulator, welfare provider or referee. Or re-assembling the state’s network of bodies (public organisations, private providers, NGOs, hybrid networks) to get experientially closer to injustice, might be disarticulated from the state’s ostensible monopoly on legitimate, organised violence.
A multi-identity state framework challenges the common-sense view of a clear state/society boundary since it suggests bodies, people and forces are variously integrated, incorporated, excluded, and at the borders of, diverse state identities in complex, intersecting and changing ways (see also Mitchell 1991; Painter 2006, p. 753). Within this more plural framework, stretching state identities, in ways that overhang or unhinge them from each other, suggests ways of folding more radical politics in, or of bringing such politics into contact with state dimensions seemingly less prone to co-optive incorporation. But this is far from straight-forward. Aside from the danger that social movements will appear more broadly aligned with the gamut of the state than they intend, decoupling state identities is hugely difficult and complex. In some cases, it might prove impossible as particular identities, in particular temporal-spatial junctures, are inextricably tied together. While their individual character might prove more plastic, and the specific form their joins take, some identities cannot be literally yanked apart.
Finally, there is the risk that, even if successful (at least in the context of particular projects), thinning out simply contributes to intra-state walls, ghettos and silos—a mode of compartmentalisation little different from current ways of containing progressive state projects’ reach, as witnessed by the fact security services, armed forces, extra-territorial projects and immigration—that is the state’s territorial and military identities—remain barred from much of equality governance’s touch. This, then, is the “dilemmatic” terrain of state engagement, where the logic of what to do, when it comes to equality, points in competing directions (Cooper 2004): to stretch and extend state identities so individual ones can be accessed and reformulated without always bringing the weight of others along too; to weaken prevailing linkages among state identities and build new ones; and to critically address the compartmentalisation—the boundaries, and limits—of a hegemonic state.
How does touch get deployed within equality governance, and how does this direct us to particular questions and ways of thinking about the state? In addressing this question, I began this article with the linguistic register touch, particularly as “contact”, provides for imagining and enacting governance. Touch’s lexicon, as given shape and voice by governmental organisations, maps, enables and qualifies interactions and connections between public, commercial, group and individual bodies. In denoting internal and external processes, touch renders the state intelligible as a series of agentic bodies. But while considering state touch helps rebalance political science traditions that largely dismiss the senses, it is important not to go overboard in uncovering sensation within equality governance.31 Contact between governance bodies may be somewhat textured—modulated by concerns with soft, hard, light, heavy, hostile and co-operative touch. But other governmental depictions deploy a far less sensuous register—of vertical touch between state and dispossessed subjects, of optic geometries of inequality’s parts and arrangements—tenderising the problem of inequality so it becomes amenable to state capture.
The haptic limits to this touch thus led me to consider a different approach—to explore how the social politics that become enfolded within the state have and might get assembled and enacted through active citizenship. This is an engagement with state incorporation that resists the “pureé-fication” of social politics (that is, turning state-based social politics into something so dissolved they cannot exert any force). Speaking in a “more-than-official” register, active citizenship challenges, sometimes extends, the rules and conventions of the game (or playing well), to articulate ideas, policies, approaches, and techniques that lie dormant, sidelined, or quashed by mainstream governance.
In the context of my study, active citizenship, beyond the state borders that NGOs sometimes penetrate, remains well hidden. However, some glimpses are evident. I explored these, in the light of considering what else active citizenship might involve, particularly an active citizenship organised around feeling as an ethos of state action. So, I asked: What would it mean for state-based forces to mobilise equality governance through minor stream registers of feeling, feeling one’s way and feeling what lies before in relation to equality politics? But I also wanted to ask: is state-enacted feeling, even theoretically, a good thing? This was the question I finally turned to.
My argument in the end was that it depended—in part, at least—on how the state is realised and understood. From a multi-identity state framework, the danger of state-mobilised and enacted feeling is the danger of an expansive, thick (and thus powerful) state structure. However, if extending particular state identities towards reflexivity, sensuousness, touch-based learning, and emotion don’t necessarily bring other state identities in train, the danger from certain identities being pulled in new directions may lessen (or at least change). Being touched by the state—being folded in and ingested—appear powerful, even overwhelming, processes when we read the state according to its carceral, capitalist, militarised, neoliberal character. But in the context of a thinned out state, incorporation according to one identity may be held apart (recognising how much of a struggle or challenge this poses) from incorporation by another. At the same time, aside from the immense difficulty—practically and politically—of the task, decoupling or unhinging state identities is not a complete remedy. Multiple quasi-states or thin states may mean equality agendas are contained and ghettoised, kept apart from being able to influence more coercive, authoritarian or inequality-promoting state practices. Thus, removing some hinges needs to take place alongside the establishment of new articulations.
And in thinking about such new articulations, the language of touch becomes a useful tool, one that directs our attention to how state identities articulate, cohere, and detach from one another—to rethink (and re-produce differently) the relationship between them. While change to any one identity is important, it is the way they hinge together that so often gets neglected. In this way, an “egalitarian haptic imagination” might help reframe the connections between state identities, as scholarship on intersectionality has sought to accomplish with social ones.
There is also the specific apparatus and machinery of equality governance associated with the devolved nations—Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
See Theresa May, Minister for Women and Equalities, “Equality Strategy Speech”, 17 November 2010, Coin Street Community Centre, London.
See for instance, GEO, The Equality Bill: Duty to Reduce Socio-economic Inequalities, January 2010, p. 30, praising Brighton and Hove Housing Service for addressing socio-economic disadvantage through “a balance of support and enforcement to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour problems”.
Government Equalities Office, Working Towards Equality, October 2009, p. 19.
GEO, Turning Policy into Action, Business Plan, 2010–2011, March 2010, p. 2.
E.g., Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Women Councillors’ Taskforce Report, October 2009; also EHRC, Cohesion and Equality Guidance for Funders, October 2009, p. 4.
April 2010, p. 34.
See EHRC, Cohesion and Equality: Guidance for Funders, October 2009, p. 7.
See EHRC, The Public Sector Equality Duties and Financial Decisions, March 2009, p. 5. “Under the Gender Equality Duty, public authorities must consult staff, service users and other relevant bodies. Under the Disability Equality Duty, authorities must promote disabled people’s participation and involve disabled people. Involvement requires much more active engagement of disabled stakeholders than consultation.”
See EHRC, Positive Action Briefing Note, July 2009, p. 9.
See Trevor Phillips, “Poor white boys are victims too”, Sunday Times, 27 April 2008, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article3822685.ece.
Discriminators are classified by organisational identity as a public body, service provider, company, club etc., not in terms of social relations of gender, class, race etc.
See EHRC ‘Our Space’ website; http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/key-projects/youth-projects/our-space/ [last accessed 18 January 2011].
Olmec, A Guide to Equality and Diversity in the Third Sector, June 2008. For a more sophisticated framework, see EHRC, Developing the Equality Measurement Framework, 2009, p. xiii; a three-dimensional matrix involving: (1) inequality (of outcomes, process and autonomy); (2) across ten domains of social life and activity; (3) and involving eight social characteristics, including class.
GEO, The Equality Bill: Duty to Reduce Socio-economic Inequalities, A Guide, January 2010, p. 14.
DCLG, Creating a Single Equality Scheme for 2010–2013, Consultation, December 2009, p. 9.
Although external pressure can become incorporated and thus legitimated, see for instance GEO, The Equality Bill: Duty to Reduce Socio-economic Inequalities, A Guide January 2010, p. 28, which explicitly refers to citizen engagement as an “effective mechanism for ensuring compliance with the duty”.
For an example of one senior governmental officer’s self-portrayal as an activist within official political structures, see Hunter and Swan’s (2007) interview with Angela Mason (especially p. 490).
CLG, Fairness and Freedom: The Final Report of the Equalities Review: A Summary, February 2007, p. 6.
For a contemporaneous example, see the British government’s expression of regret following the Report of the Bloody Sunday Inquiry on British soldiers firing and killing protestors in Londonderry in 1972. BBC News Northern Ireland, 15 June 2010; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10320609 [last accessed 29 November 2010].
Trevor Phillips, “Foreword”, Our Human Rights Strategy and Programme of Action; 2009–2012, p. 1 (EHRC).
EHRC, Cohesion and Equality: Guidance for Funders, October 2009, pp. 3–4. Emphasis added.
See R (Kaur and Shah) v. LB Ealing  EWHC 2062 (Admin), judgment of Moses LJ that Ealing council was in breach of their duty under the Race Relations Act 1976 for failing to properly consider the racial impact of requiring that organisations funded by them to provide domestic violence services must make such services equally available to all, regardless of race. The EHRC was an intervenor in this case, and their subsequent report (discussed here) can be interpreted as simply explaining the law given the decision in this case. At the same time, reports have a tone which conveys (or produces) particular feelings.
Public bodies recognise, to varying degrees, that inequalities such as gender, sexuality, and race work differently. However, the equality governance structure discussed treats them as broadly analogous—as the same kind of thing. This analogising has been driven by social movement organisations, writers and scholars as well as legal and governmental bodies. While it helps some organising principles, such as sexuality, to be treated more seriously—fitted within an already existing framework—sexuality is only recognised as generating inequalities to the extent it is deemed the same sort of phenomenon as gender or race—and, of course, to the extent they can be analogised to each other.
DCLG, Creating a Single Equality Scheme, 2010–2013 Consultation, December 2009, p. 11.
There are also problems in approaching the state as a series of agentic bodies, I have not the space to pursue further here.