Who owns criminology ?

A short note on gaps, divides and bridges..


Ronnie Lippens


Introduction :

This is a paper that asks that one terrible question, once again : "What is criminology" ? I’ve rephrased this question. Now it sounds like, "Who owns the sign ‘Criminology’ " ? or, more daringly perhaps, "Who owns Criminology" ? Who decides what is allowed to go under the heading of ‘criminology’, and who decides what is not ? And what are such decisions based on ? I have, personally, quickly found out who those people are. They’re the editors and reviewers of journals that present themselves as ‘criminological’ journals. But you knew that before, of course. Editors and reviewers of ‘criminological’ journals own criminology. That may be a truism. But is it ? Do they own criminology ? Do they own criminology (what about us) ? Who are they ? What makes them think they own criminology ? I gave these questions some thought, when, a few months ago ( at the end of 1999), I submitted a paper to a ‘criminological’ journal. The paper was rejected, largely because both reviewers thought the paper was not ‘criminological’ enough. Let me share my thoughts with you. But first, I will have to explain to you what the paper was all about. So, first I will tell something about the paper and its rejection. Then I will proceed with sharing some thoughts I had with regard to the ownership of ‘criminology’. I will end with suggesting ways towards a more open reconceptualization of ‘criminology’. I think criminology is about gaps, divides and bridges.


Deviance, difference, and control


Not that long ago, I submitted a paper to a journal that regularly publishes ‘criminological’ work of a more or less ‘theoretical’ slant. The paper, I thought, was ‘criminological’, and ‘theoretical’. It was written, though, from the ‘outside’ : it set out as an ethnographic account of a piece of academic everyday life, then it gathered some pace as a social theory course, and it ended up as a rather abstract reflection on the undecideability, on the (im)possibility, and on the instability of signs, and thus also of hegemonic practices, such as theories, or ‘theory’ as such, and the didactic, everyday encounters through which those practices are being (re)produced. The paper, basically, was a reflection on a concrete event that recently happened somewhere, at a conference on the future(s) of feminist social theory : discussions amongst well-known feminist theorists, their displays of ‘feminist’ authority, and their attempts at controlling or even dominating the debate eventually ended up causing a Ph.D. student to burst out in tears, on stage, which prompted the audience to silently flee away into the coffee-room. I entitled the paper "Contingent conferences. A note on unsettling didactics, (im)possible hegemony, and everyday in/ex/clusions".

In the paper, I tried to demonstrate, while reflecting on ‘the event’, that signs are unstable, have no fixed meaning, and can only produce (or break) hegemonic articulations highly undecidably, (im)possibly. A host of signs, e.g. ‘civic’, ‘public’, ‘rational’, ‘rational argument’, ‘debate’, ‘feminine identity’, ‘feminine difference’, ‘feminism’, ‘woman’, ‘theory’, etc cannot even to the slightest extent guarantee a more or less hegemonic outcome of didactic encounters -like during academic conferences- even if all participants would agree that this string of signs would or should, in a way, serve as a sort of guideline for the encounter. The outcome of didactic encounters is a matter of undecideability and contingency, not so much, as I argued throughout the ethnographic account of the concrete event, because in any didactic encounter vile, everyday power plays and malicious, oppositional intents would flourish abundantly, as because of the rude and simple experience that shows us, time and again, that all those signs have no intrinsic, fixed meaning. Nor has any sign, for that matter. Signs just float and hover over thousands of contexts, into which they may (or may not) be evoked and mobilised, and put to work in myriad strategics and tactics, the outcome of which is then a matter of contingency and undecideability. A ‘rational argument’ is not, as such. ‘Feminism’ is not, as such. ‘Woman’ is not, as such. Et cetera. They are what people are prepared to forge/force or negotiate through undecidable and contingent contexts, and in no way can these signs themselves serve as guides through those forgings, enforcements and negotiations : their meanings -their fixations onto signifieds- have to be forced/forged or negotiated themselves, in those very contextual forgings, enforcements, negotiations themselves. A ‘feminist politics of difference’ (see Iris Marion Young, 1990), for example, or a feminist politics of identity have no fixed meaning whatsoever outside the concrete, highly unstable fixations that are being forced/forged or negotiated in very concrete, highly contingent contexts of undecideability. Once a fixation is forced/forged or negotiated, then it’s only a matter of time for de-fixation and re-fixation to set in. Under contemporary conditions, one may count ‘time’ here in seconds, rather than in hours. The signs will float and drift again very soon : a ‘difference’ is just another ‘identity’ (and vice versa), a ‘politics of difference’ is just another ‘politics of identity’ (and vice versa), a ‘rational argument’ is just another affective urge (and vice versa), ‘Woman’ is this here, but is that over there (and vice versa again) etc. So, if one would want to (re)produce some form of hegemony, or, to put things here very basically, if one would want to be understood and/or supported, or, simpler yet : if one would just want to make or be friends (see Derrida, 1997, on the (im)possibility of politics of friendship), then one will be confronted with the (im)possibilities that thrive within a world of contingency and undecideability. Myriad strings of signs may help -may possibilize- producing something of a hegemonic articulation, but they just as well may not, and impossibilize instead whichever hegemonic articulation one might have had in mind. Signs will keep on floating and drifting. Well, anyway, rude and simple experience shows us, time and again. Perhaps, one fine day, they will stop floating and drifting, but that is a matter of contingency and undecideability. And even that little phrase : "but that is a matter of contingency and undecideability", is a matter of contingency and undecideability. I have no problem admitting that. If one would want to include, then again the trouble -or should I say : the joy ?- of undecideability lies ahead : inclusion can only come about through exclusions, and, to make matters more desperate -or should I say, hopeful ?- inclusion is just another form of exclusion. And vice versa, again. If ‘inclusions’ or ‘exclusions’ are anything, then they are unstable outcomes of contingent performances; if they will be anything (else), then they will be unstable outcomes of yet Other contingent performances (see on all this the ‘feminist ?’ work of, e.g., Judith Butler, 1997). This, so I argued, is the space of desperation, and the space of vivid hope. It is an (im)possible space. A space of (im)possibility.

Originally, I wrote the piece as part of a course on ‘social theory and criminological research’. It had, I thought, a bit of everything in it. It allowed, so I assumed, students to get acquainted with some recent ‘debates’ (enforcements ? forgings ? negotiations ?) within social theory -notably post-structuralism and deconstructionism- and it offered some unsettling -at least, I thought so- reflections on research methodology (on ethnography), on the shaky problematics of identity/difference and inclusion/exclusion, on the ‘criminological’ themes of hegemony, difference, authority and order, and on the contingent everyday of Academia and its products, of its everyday practical performances (see, e.g., Fish, 1989), i.e. strings of expensive words, theories, ‘theory’, etc. I assumed all of this would have been of interest to criminology students, who were likely to be interested in topics like difference and control, contingency and order, hegemonic articulations and dissipations, negotiation and undecideability, democracy and authority. Having read the piece, a colleague of mine urged me, however, to submit the paper to a journal that specializes in theoretical matters of/in criminology. Which I did. Even though the piece did not include signs criminologists often tend to use (such as ‘deviance’, ‘control’, ‘crime’, ‘prison’, ‘police’, ‘risk’, ‘governance’), I thought my colleague’s was a nice idea.

Well done ! But no criminology

The reviews ultimately landed on my desk. They were rather positive, supportive even (which I appreciated). But there were some remarks as well, of course. One reviewer read the piece as a ‘parable about exclusion and inclusion’, which could, ‘if handled carefully, even take up the mantle of labelling theory (applying this to labelling of concepts rather than of behaviour)’. This was a nice suggestion, which may lead us, one day, even into (anOther) labelling perspective on … labelling perspectives ? The same reviewer, however, thought the paper did not enough to ‘show the fruitfulness of this type of postmodernist writing for criminology –or academia’ (italics, R.L., are important here; the paper, however, did not include ‘postmodern’ jargon). The second reviewer also likened the piece to art (it apparently stirred emotions, e.g. through its exclusive ‘pretentiousness’) : a comparison which, in a way, directly underscored the paper’s positions on performativity.

Ultimately, however, the piece was rejected because it was ‘inappropriate for the readership’ of the journal. The second reviewer explicitly regretted that the piece was rather ‘a deconstructionist phenomenology of the event, rather than an analysis of crime, or developing a theoretical perspective on crime’ (italics R.L.), and that though the paper addressed power as harm (and as such, it was ‘helpful’), it did not make ‘the connections to crime explicit’ (italics, R.L.). This reviewer advised the editor to urge me to send the paper to some journal of a more general slant, e.g. Postmodern Culture.

Somehow, both reviewers seemed to have some kind of more or less fixed conception of what ‘criminology’ should be, and what should then not be ‘criminology’. None of the reviewers, unfortunately, tried to explain this to me. Perhaps they thought this did not need any explanation at all ? They perhaps assumed that the question as to the boundaries of ‘criminology’ does not need any answer, since those boundaries are too obvious, for anyone to see and to stumble upon ? Suddenly, the contingency, the (im)possibility, the undecideability, and the instability I wrote about in the paper struck me in the face, full force. The sign ‘criminology’, floating and drifting around, had been fixed (constructed onto some rather heavy signified) by both reviewers, and was then thrown in my direction, only to hit me with the force of a construction worker’s brick. Both reviewers, in a way, performed criminology; that is, they organized a certain practice of knowledge, they drew some lines or boundaries, and, in the process, excluded all and everything Other, and Other, alternative, performances of ‘criminology’. This process of exclusion, by the way, was their performance.

Both reviewers’ remarks, however, kept on whizzing in my head, because, of course, their remark has some considerable implications which exceed the problematic of one paper and one journal. At stake is the ownership of (the sign) ‘criminology’.


Ownership and boundary police


Who claims to own (the sign) ‘criminology’ ? Who mobilizes the power/knowledge (Foucault, of course) to organize its fixations ? Who claims the authority to draw its boundaries ? Who will evoke its orders ? Who will claim to Know what is supposed to remain in its margins ? Who will negotiate, and eventually forge/forge decisions as to which signs are allowed in the realm of ‘criminology’, and which have to stay ‘outside’ ? Who really pretends to Know which interpretive communities (Fish, 1989, again) are those that merit to be named ‘criminological’, and which -obviously !- do not ? Who bears the keys to the gates (of exclusion) ? Who will police the boundaries ? Who will organize the border patrol ? Whose Law(s), and whose Order(s) (remember Chambliss and Mankoff ?) are the vehicles -the source and the outcome- of this performance ? What kind of differences will be tolerated in ‘criminology’, and which will not ? Who will rule the orders ? Who will police and control the borders ? What will turn out to be marginal, or deviantly different voices ? What kind of performances will be allowed, and which will not ? What kind of change will be allowed, and which will not ? And why ?

Now don’t get me wrong here. All of this is not directed at both my reviewers specifically. I have nothing against their performance(s) of ‘criminology’. Indeed, I liked and appreciated their remarks very much; this short piece at hand, then, is certainly not meant as a reaction to the rejection, by the journal, of my earlier paper; I’m just asking a question here : who owns (the sign) ‘criminology’ ? I, for one, certainly would not deny both reviewers’ right to performance (such a denial, by the way, would be an absurdity, since one cannot not-perform; such a denial would be a performance in itself). I like performances, actually, and most of the time I really do try to read beauty in them, though I have to admit that my trials often are even more partial and fallible than the performances themselves. And, moreover, I admit here, wholeheartedly, that my own performances of criminology, that my own exclusive inclusions, my own different identities, my own orders and borders, my own attempts at policing the boundaries, are in turn only what they are : partial and fallible, ever-fallible constructions, negotiated and often forged/forced out of contingency and undecideability. And indeed, I immediately acknowledge here that my performed (b)orders of criminology -even if I once have clothed them with the sign ‘borderless’ (see Lippens, 1998)- are just that : partial and ever-fallible attempts at control and mastery, born out of contingency and undecideability, of which they bear all the traces, and which turns them into unstable, shaky constructions which will simply always be in need of suppléments; which, in other words, will always and ever be dependent on their ‘constitutif extérieur’, to use a few deconstructionist’s terms here. But all of this, I’m afraid, is just my point.

What is my point ? My point is this : all is performance, and all performance is partial and fallible. And yes, even this ‘performance’ is; even this performance has to be negotiated and/or forged/forced (which is what I’m trying to do just now). I’m afraid there is no escape here. Again : what is my point ? All is partial and fallible performance, and all performances are dependent on Other performances, parts of which they inevitably need to include within their alleged boundaries (this inevitably turns all performance into performance of hybridity; see Joseph and Fink, 1999; see, for an application on postcolonial theory and on feminist legal theory, also Lippens, 1999), and parts of which they inevitably need to exclude (without exclusions, there would be no performance at all). This simply is my point. But all of this implies that indeed every performance in inherently and inevitably unstable, since it simply is dependent on all and everything Other that -be sure about that- will keep on unsettling, will keep on haunting its alleged fixities, will keep on invading its (b)orders, from the ‘outside’, from the ‘margins’, from the suppressed spaces in the inevitably hybrid ‘within’. This point implies that, indeed, signs are largely up for grabs; significations are part of performances; significations are performances. They have to be performed, ever-fallibly, ever again. They will be re-performed, ever-contingently, ever again. The participants at the conference on the future(s) of feminist theory have learned all of this the hard way; the irony is here that the participants at the conference, to a considerable extent, were discussing the performativity of gender. And I myself have learned all of this also the hard and ironic way, by sending a piece on the performativity of orders and boundaries, on the performativity of difference and control, on the performativity of border patrols and boundary police, to a journal that specializes in all things theoretical with/in criminology. I learned it when, once again, I read editorial remarks on the non-criminologicallity of my ‘criminological’ performance on the contingency, on the undecideability, on the instability, and on the (im)possibility of performances of (b)order control, of performances of difference and authority, of performances of hegemonies and dissipations. I learned it, once again, when I realized the (im)possibility of ‘criminological’ performance, that is, I learned it at the exact moment when I realized, once again, that precisely this (im)possibility of ‘criminological’ performance, that precisely this conception of ‘criminology’ as (im)possible (b)order performance, once again fallibly stumbled into and tripped over its fallible truth; over its fallibility which is its truth; and over its truth, which is fallibility. This, if anything, is the stuff of .... well, yes, of what ? Of criminology ? Also of criminology ? Who owns (the sign) ‘criminology’, anyway ?

Gaps, divides, and bridges

Let me end this on another note, or should I say : let me just try out another performance ? Over the years, there have been many discussions as to what would be criminology’s object, and what would be its boundaries. All those discussions, all those words, all those performances. All those struggles, all those truths, all those heres and theres, ins and outs. All those communications, all that chatter. All those gaps, all those bridges. All those inclusive/clearing gaps; all those exclusive/blocking attempts at building bridges. If anything, I would say that ‘criminology’ is just that : communications, chatter, struggles, gaps, bridges, etc. on communications, chatter, struggles, gaps, bridges, etc. (e.g. on what would, or should be ‘criminology’). If anything, in my view, ‘criminology’ is the performance of gaps, divides and bridges; it is the chattered/communicated/struggled performance of and about gaps, divides and bridges; it is the performance of gaps, divides and bridges through the performance of chatter/communication/struggle. If anything, it is gaps, divides, and bridges. If anything, it is chattered negotiations and forced/forged communications. If anything, it is about chattered negotiations and forced/forged communications. If anything, it is about the instability, about the undecideability, about the (im)possibility, about the contingency out of which all alleged fixities emerge that position themselves in a string of signs, just after the words ‘if anything’. If anything, it is about the ever-fallible performance of if anythings. But how undisciplined must we get (see Genosko, 1998) to perform ‘criminology’ this way ? According to which and whose discipline(s) ? If anything ....



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