Despite the imperative for change in a world of persistent inequality, racism, oppression and violence, difficulties arise once we try to bring about a transformation. As scholars, students and activists, we may want to change the world, but we are not separate, looking in, but rather part of the world ourselves. The book demonstrates that we are not in control: with all our academic rigour, we cannot know with certainty why the world is the way it is, or what impact our actions will have. It asks what we are to do, if this is the case, and engages with our desire to seek change. Chapters scrutinise the role of intellectuals, experts and activists in famine aid, the Iraq war, humanitarianism and intervention, traumatic memory, enforced disappearance, and the Grenfell Tower fire, and examine the fantasy of security, contemporary notions of time, space and materiality, and ideas of the human and sentience. Plays and films by Michael Frayn, Chris Marker and Patricio Guzmán are considered, and autobiographical narrative accounts probe the author’s life and background. The book argues that although we might need to traverse the fantasy of certainty and security, we do not need to give up on hope.

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9781526119032 PRINT.indd 1 22/02/2019 08:34 2 change and the politics of certainty abstractions of geometry – useful as they are – into the approximations that produce a workable edifice. And yet such abstractions form ‘the categories and assumptions’ that constrain ‘attempts to think otherwise about political possibilities’.3 Importantly, we are not encouraged to examine them, but to take them for granted. Rather than seeing our assumptions as ‘historically specific understandings of space and time’, we treat them as common sense.4 The ‘we’ here stands outside history

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214 change and the politics of certainty Conclusion In this book I have attempted to challenge a number of the assumptions academics commonly make: assumptions that problems are to be solved and questions answered; that certainty and security are possible; that academics can take an objective position and pronounce on how the world works and what should be done; and, most of all, that we can change the world. I have tried to develop a different view, one that sees academic engagement as a careful, slow, step-by-step making or remaking of the world, often in

in Change and the politics of certainty

50 change and the politics of certainty 3 1 The final core of uncertainty We do not know how to predict what would happen in a given circumstance, and we believe now that it is impossible… that this is the way nature really is. – Richard Feynman2 Approaches to the social world that attempt to adopt a scientific method and identify cause and effect to try to solve problems and to predict future outcomes draw on a Newtonian cosmology. This view of the world treats objects as distinct, independent of observation, and existing before they interact, and time and

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124 change and the politics of certainty 7 1 Tracing disappearance Nothing … is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces. – Jacques Derrida2 Memorial practices are especially difficult in cases of disappearance. Ordinary practices of memory don’t work, and yet memory has to be continually kept alive. Families are thrown into a deep, unresolvable crisis. When someone goes missing, relatives have to hold two contradictory thoughts in mind at the same time: the person may be dead, or, they may walk

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168 change and the politics of certainty 9 1 The Grenfell Tower fire The extraordinary always turns out to be an amplification of something in the works. – Lauren Berlant2 On 14 June 2017, in the early hours of the morning, a fire broke out in Grenfell Tower, a twenty-four-storey apartment block in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. It spread swiftly to engulf the whole tower in flames, trapping residents in their flats and defeating the efforts of the fire brigade to bring it under control. It burned for more than two days, leaving the

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platform had been in 2002? Where people had queued quietly to climb up for their two minutes overlooking the pit? I check the buildings to the right. Yes, that is it. The plywood platforms, endorsed by a visitor called Mariette with the words ‘We all lost you EDKINS 9781526119032 PRINT.indd 111 22/02/2019 08:34 112 change and the politics of certainty 1  Construction site, Ground Zero, May 2014 all, and mourn together. We are not sightseers’ stood right here. I take some photographs. Pause. Think. Which way to go? Follow the crowds? There are notices saying ‘Entry

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heroism and EDKINS 9781526119032 PRINT.indd 95 22/02/2019 08:34 96 change and the politics of certainty sacrifice that reinforces the national story, survivors or witnesses of traumatic events often prefer a more open form of memorialisation, one that encircles the trauma and challenges the narrative. Practices of memory in relation to traumatic events could thus potentially provide openings for prising apart the forms of sovereign power we call the state and the ways of life produced by such forms of power.4 However, the echo of an ingrained temporal linearity

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.indd 73 22/02/2019 08:34 74 change and the politics of certainty form ‘state humanitarianism’. What has been lost, he claims, is what humanitarianism can contribute that nothing else can: a concern for human dignity and direct acts of solidarity and sympathy with those suffering oppression. An increase in talk of humanitarian norms has been accompanied by a sell-out of independent humanitarianism. Rieff argues for an acceptance of the limits to effective action and a recognition that it is the tragedy of the human condition that there is always more that could be

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PRINT.indd 149 22/02/2019 08:35 150 change and the politics of certainty the remains of her husband, disappeared during the 1970s, dreams of the possibility that the telescopes, now focused on the stars, could instead be turned downwards to scan the desert for traces of human remains. It was not only the pathos of that dream, and its impossibility, that I found moving, but her apologetic yet barely concealed anger at the injustice of the fortune spent on cosmological research while the needs of relatives of the disappeared were disregarded. In this chapter I

in Change and the politics of certainty