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The Push and Pull of Reflection

With each chapter I write of my book, I find myself gravitating towards a particular idea that helps me grapple with answering the question at its heart: what is the space for reflection in our lives today?

I’m approaching my fifth chapter – the halfway point if all goes to plan! – so it feels right to start exploring how these ideas might relate. I won’t delve as deep as I do in the book, but I’ll introduce them in turn before explaining what I think they can together tell us about a further idea I want to introduce: ‘reflective agency'’. More on that later!

Outsourced reflection

In looking at the space for reflection in our working lives, I have coined a term, ‘outsourced reflection.’ This refers to the kind of intellectual labour of probing and questioning concepts that organisations might hire others to do. This might be part of wider projects the organisation is doing – subcontracting reflection essentially – or it might involve reflecting on the organisation itself. Often this is work that that, knowingly or not, addresses philosophical questions.

For example, a consultancy might be hired to think through ethical questions an organisation faces. This is more explicit in the case of something like ‘Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG)’ services. The ‘Big Four’ consultancies – Deloitte, EY, KPMG, and PwC – all do ESG consulting. It is concerned with how companies address the external impacts of what they do, such as their contributions and efforts to ameliorate the effects of climate change or gender inequality. ESG has at other times been under the banner of ‘corporate social responsibility’ and ‘business ethics.’

Structures of feeling

In looking at the space for reflection in community life, I have drawn on Raymond Williams’ notion of a ‘structure of feeling.’ In essence, this is about our shared sense of what it feels like to be alive in a particular time and place, something often tied up with the way society is changing and the questions that this raises for us. For example, we might think about the way digitalisation is changing the way it feels to work, socialise, and communicate. There will be things about these changes that many of us feel but have not yet fully articulated or reflected upon.

The conversations we have in local, community spaces, or more generally in ‘third’ spaces (i.e., they are neither workplaces nor homes) often drift into articulating a structure of feeling. Alongside the internet, pubs, cafes, libraries, community centres, and so on, can and do function for many as a way in which to explore the questions raised by structures of feeling, and the emerging (often competing) ways to think about these.


In looking at the space for reflection in our media, I have come across the idea of ‘literalization’ developed by Walter Benjamin in the 1930s. Benjamin was looking at how newspapers were increasingly attentive to their audiences. Their reporting was becoming more responsive to the interests of a wider readership, and more papers were including submissions from readers in their Letters to the Editor sections. Benjamin’s term for how audiences become more involved in the media itself was ‘literalization.’

To ‘literalize’ our lives is dissolve or blur in different ways the lines between author and audience, and it is something we are very accustomed to, following the explosion of user-generated content engendered by social media. Literalization changes how we interact with the media, but it can also change how we perceive our relationship to the world as a whole. It might encourage us to view our present moment as something to ask questions about. When media is genuinely empowering, we might feel we have a space to open up these questions that did not exist before.

Front covers of four books : Structures of Feeling by Devika Sharma and Frederik Tygstrup, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media by Walter Benjamin, Aesthetics of Care by Yuriko Saito, and On Revolution by Hannah Arendt.

Everyday aesthetics

In my last blog, I talked about our opportunities for reflection that come from engaging with art and culture, and how this kind of ‘aesthetic’ reflection extends beyond just paintings, music, films, books, and so on. Aesthetics can encompass all of our sensory experiences, of artworks or otherwise. Yuriko Saito has written a great deal about this, using the term ‘everyday aesthetics.’ This refers to a way of understanding how there is an aesthetic dimension to every moment of our lives, from the textures of clothes when doing the laundry, to the sights and sounds when walking down the street, to the rhythm of a conversation.

Saito argues that there is a link between our ethical judgments and our aesthetic judgments. Among other reasons, this is because our ability to act in ways that do not harm others, the natural world, and material objects, requires us to accurately perceive the world so that we have a true understanding of the potential impacts of our actions. When someone or something undermines our ability to act ethically, it can be because our opportunities for careful aesthetic engagement have also been undermined.

Public happiness

The chapter I am currently writing looks at the space for political reflection in our lives. I already have a sense that the concept at the heart of this chapter will be ‘public happiness.’ This is a term popularised by the political theorist Hannah Arendt that refers to the positive experience of exercising ‘public freedom’ with others, which means our freedom to participate in public life and political decision-making.

While these might strike you as odd activities to make people happy, Arendt was referring the way in which we can experience these as examples of collective joy, or at least collective fulfilment. Recognisable examples might be the benefits people can feel from experience of taking part in pickets or protests. It is the satisfaction of being visible in public life, feeling that your voice matters and that you are being heard, feeling in common with others, and feeling you may be able to exercise agency over the world around you.

Reflective agency

Talking about being able to act on the world is apt for what I want to end this blog on. A thread is emerging across the core ideas in my book. They all seem to circle around what I am currently calling ‘reflective agency’ (this is not meant in connection to this use of the term). This concerns our capacity to reflect on our lives and the world around us. Various forces – economic, political, cultural, psychological, etc. – can shape our reflective agency. Each of the ideas above can help us think through our opportunities for reflection, or our degree of reflective agency.

Employers can outsource reflection, thus alienating a part of work from people. Yes, this work may be given to someone else in the process, but this still affects the original person’s experience of their work. Even if employers do not outsource reflective labour, they might put it under pressure through creating working conditions that are not conducive to it.

In contrast, in our increasingly literalized media, we are all ostensibly living in a time of abundance for reflection. We have the technological capacity to share our thoughts and discuss these with others across vast networks of communication and varied media. Yet our experience of this can often feel like the opposite. Tech companies remain the ultimate actor designing and governing the spaces in which we communicate with others online and express ourselves. The spaces they foster are often cacophonous and can be far from conducive to (collective) reflection.

In our communal lives, there is less illusion about what’s available to us. There has been an erosion of physical third spaces that allow us to interact with people outside of work and the home, as part of a broader erosion of social infrastructure; the closing down of pubs, libraries, youth centres, and so on. The result is our opportunities to collectively reflect on the structures of feeling we all swim in are in turn reduced (or shifted online to environments ill-suited for this). Nonetheless, despite (or perhaps because of) the impacts of digital technology on our interactions with others, we are acutely aware of the existence of these feelings. I’d argue we continue to feel the pull of our desire, or even need, to reflect with others, even if this isn’t apparent to us all of the time.

Against this backdrop, art remains a haven in which we can seek space to reflect, though here too its infrastructure can be challenged by, for example, a lack of government funding for cultural spaces. What is most striking about art and aesthetic experience more generally is these have a power to remind us about the possibility of posing questions about life. This can catch us off-guard sometimes, be that through the questions a book, a conversation with a friend about a film, or just our experience of the natural world, can throw up for us. Aesthetic experience, like communal life, reminds us of the pull of reflection.

Finally, public happiness can occur in the context of exercising our reflective agency with others. In discussion, for example in deliberative processes or in political education, and in activism, people can experience public happiness through thinking together with others about a matter of public life. Interestingly, attention to public happiness (or something like it) through dialogue with others can be found across the political spectrum, from Michael Oakeshott’s conservatism to Rosa Luxemburg’s socialism (though there will be limits to this, in anti-democratic strands of the left, right, and centre).

The opportunity to reflect by ourselves with others is about feeling agency over our lives, the actions we take, and the world around us. It might not be hyperbole to say that it is part of what it means to feel truly alive. I am coming to realise that the book I am writing is in a way an effort to identify what acts against, and what supports, our reflective agency. No doubt, as I continue with the book, more ideas will crop up that help me think through what is emerging as its anchoring concept. If this has resonated with you and you have recommendations in turn for what elucidates the idea, please let me know!

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