Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews

Theorising – Crises? What Crises? Conceptualising Breakdowns in Practice Theory

Issue 45: Pandemic (Im)Possibilities vol. 1 Tue 2 Jun 2020 0

Deborah Giustini, University of Manchester, UK and KU Leuven, Belgium

Leuven, quarantined.
Photographed by / copyright: Dr. Marta Fanasca

As I type this piece, Belgium is transitioning to its second week of lockdown to counteract the increasing Covid-19 infections. Leuven, a vibrant town usually buzzing with university classes, research events, and cultural highlights, has gone silent. One just has to venture outside, in the quarantined streets, to register how everyday activities grow quieter by the day. Bike rides to and from the office, greeting colleagues, attending workshops; attempts to chit-chat in Flemish in a bakery nearby; the weekly delight of visiting breweries with friends; carrying out classes, meeting students, scheduling supervision sessions. These daily mundane activities, which went by through routine and habit only a few weeks ago, are now disrupted by the necessity to follow new institutional and national measures for societal protection. I experience a period of prolonged crisis that smashes my professional routine - the abrupt adjustment to telework; moving teaching to digital spaces; racking my brain to offer online assessments – how do I meet students’ learning outcomes now? Taken-for-granted activities are also in a state of change: long (distanced) queuing in front of the local supermarket; finding entertaining activities within the limits of my flat’s walls; forgetting about strolling around. The Covid-19 is, de facto, a breakdown of everyday life – mine and here, as mostly everywhere else on a global scale.

Now that I am locked down, I suddenly grasp that the Covid-19 crisis is not just – and of course most importantly – a health crisis (often masking inequalities of a varied nature), but also a crisis of daily practices. The flow of everyday life is disrupted, so that our habits, routines, and coping skills must now deal with it within the bounds of their inherent flexibility: the Covid-19 emergency has highlighted a number of consequences related to our human actions, and the disruption thereof. I am referring to the ‘crises that happen in people’s ongoing moment-to-moment lives (…) [which] encompass the activities people perform as well as the emotions and states of mind and consciousness – including experiences – they have over the course of the day (…) carrying on varied practices’ [1]. But how can we understand such disruption of everyday practising in a way which can be a worthwhile object of sociological reflection?

This endeavour is far from being rhetorical. Although diverse crises – from environmental to economic, from humanitarian to political – rightly feature as themes in social research, their theoretical conceptualisation in relation to everyday life has not received much attention. By observing the practical disruptions which we are living, generated by the Covid-19 spread, I question here whether crises can be of conceptual importance for social thought. I turn to practice theory, and in particular to Theodore Schatzki’s version of it, arguing that this paradigm can provide a productive site for the conceptualisation of crises in the context of everyday action.

Although variegated in its understandings of what constitutes social life and human coexistence [2, 3, 4], practice theories typically argue that these transpire in bundles of practices and material arrangements [5]. As such, a practice is ‘an open spatial-temporal manifold of doings and sayings that is organised by an array of understandings, rules and teleoaffective structures’ [6]. But what does practice theory illustrate about practices with regards to crises?

Already Heidegger, Bourdieu, Merleau-Ponty, and Dreyfus, amongst others, captured the significance of crisis for theoretical engagement, orienting their understanding of social life towards the analytical and ontological prominence of human action and its disruption. Generally speaking, they share a view of human practising as a default condition of “flowing habitual, skillful, or unreflective practical action” [7]. It is only when individuals encounter crises, that such virtuous coping with the world is interrupted. This suspension creates a changed way of being, where consciousness and reflection put the individual in the condition of pondering, deliberating, and assessing what to do next, to steer action once again towards its habitual trail – at least until the next crisis. Contemporary developments in practice theory incorporate this line, but also consider that practical engagement with the world accommodates the co-existence of calculation, reflection, creativity and innovation, without distinct and alternating periods of habitual or conscious coping [8].

My concern is directed here to elaborating whether the epistemological positioning of practice theory may say something more about crises beyond a discussion of practical understanding. That said, the reflections that follow are not offered as a critique of existing concepts within practice theory, but instead as a further development that turns to the overlooked concept of teleoaffectivity. Inspired by my own adjustment to the societal effects and consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, I start from Schatzki’s consideration that adjustments (to crises) are components of each practice. I argue that crises can be conversely understood as embedded within practices and their components, and they can be convincingly theorised as such.

In my view, practice theory implicitly reaffirms the nature of crises as an intrinsic part of social life, rather than as an exceptional, external state that interrupts skilful action. In ontological terms, I place crises as part of practices’ teleoaffectivity. Schatzki conceives a practice as an organised nexus of actions, understood as both doings and sayings. Doings and sayings count as the undertaking of certain tasks, aimed at completing projects and achieving ultimate ends. In fact, doings and sayings are governed by teleoaffective structures, a hierarchised combination of  practice orientations to distinctive ends, purposes, projects, and aims (teleology), together with emotional engagements, and beliefs (affectivity) which matter to individuals [9]. Thus, since actions are linked through teleoaffectivity as possible social orders of life conditions [10], there is space to argue that the possibilities of existence, for the sake of which individuals act in particular ways steered by particular emotional states [11], may already foresee particular modalities for non-existence. Therefore, what if particular modalities of teleoaffectivity of practices already include danger, breakdowns, and failure as a way of orienting how people cope (or do not cope) in a state of continuous, end-steered, emotionally-attained reliability?

I argue that teleoaffectivity may include breakdown within the panorama of ends, goals, and emotions allowed by the practice – with crisis thus being a social, practical, and embodied moment within practice. In participating in practices, people have their actions and reactions shaped and calibrated by the teleoaffectivities governing them. This means that teleoaffectivities delimit what individuals are able to do, by both establishing what customarily makes sense to do, and by excluding some possibilities while admitting others [12]. My intuition here is that practices may admit crises as the opposite of social order – disconnectedness from skilful action, from achieved goals, and from attuned emotional states.

Think about the practice of going grocery shopping in non-pandemic times. It embraces, for instance, ends, projects, tasks and purposes, such as choosing snacks, listing ingredients for a recipe, calculating the amount of food needed for a week, paying with either card or cash. It may also embrace affective states – the boredom of visiting the supermarket once again, or the excitement of purchasing a longed-for delicatessen item. Even though a person can pursue successfully all of the orders, ends, projects, and emotions involved, notice that the teleoaffective structure may already concern a disruption of that distinctive social order – forgetting one’s purse at home, finding that our favourite wine is out of stock, and so on.

Now more than ever, crises in the practice of grocery shopping – and in a plethora of other everyday collective practices – are much more noticeable. Paying by card is not anymore one of the teleological possibilities of buying food, but is re-established with a new purpose, for avoiding coming in contact with infectious cash. Shopping for a week is replaced by shopping for a longer period of time, as a protection against frequenting public spaces. Attending to crises and breakdowns in such everyday practices hence first of all implies identifying critical moments within the teleoaffective landscape of the practice, and then inspecting how these critical moments affect or justify what needs to be done, how practices adjust or invent new ways of existing [13], and how practices modify sayings and doings and the teleoaffectivities governing them. This brings us back to crises as also holding significance for understanding practical means of coping with the world. My account considers that crises and their adjustments indeed occur in relation to skilful action and its adjustments. But is also holds that crises and their adjustments occur within teleoaffective landscapes and arrangements, both composing practices and upholding their organisation.

By attending to crises in practice theory, new modes of sociality and action can be explored, particularly around situations of despair and panic which tantalise everyday life. As the call for papers for this edition of TES suggests, acting in the time of pandemic may open up unpredictable and far-reaching effects – and reflecting upon crises in social theory could, conversely, establish how conditions of instability are leading to decisive teleoaffective changes at multiple, practical levels.

[1] Schatzki, T. R. (2016). Crises and adjustments in ongoing life. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie41(1), 17-33. Citation page: 18
[2] Reckwitz, A. (2002). Toward a theory of social practices: A development in culturalist theorizing. European journal of social theory5(2), 243-263.
[3] Warde, A. (2016). The practice of eating. John Wiley & Sons.
[4] Shove, E., Pantzar, M., & Watson, M. (2012). The dynamics of social practice: Everyday life and how it changes. London: Sage.
[5] Schatzki, T.R. (2002). The site of the social: A philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
[6] Schatzki, T. R. (2016). Crises and adjustments in ongoing life. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie41(1), 17-33. Citation page: 26
[7] Schatzki, T. R. (2016). Crises and adjustments in ongoing life. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie41(1), 17-33. Citation page: 21
[8] Reckwitz, A. (2003). Grundelemente einer Theorie sozialer Praktiken. Eine sozialtheoretische Perspektive. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 32:282–301.
[9] Schatzki, T.R. (2002). The site of the social: A philosophical account of the constitution of social life and change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
[10] Schatzki, T. R. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Citation pages: 100-114
[11] Heidegger, M. (1962) [1926]. Being and time, trans. John Macquarrie, and Edwin Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell.
[12] Schatzki, T. R. (1996). Social practices: A Wittgensteinian approach to human activity and the social. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
[13] Bueger, C. (2014). Pathways to practice: praxiography and international politics. European political science review6(3), 383-406. Citation page: 397

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