What is it like to bat? Dreyfus, McDowell and the exemplary game

The first conference I attended after becoming a parent, and therefore experienced in the ‘concentrated’ way described in my last post, was in Boston in 2008. One of the things I did manage to squeeze in between arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, spending two days in presenting, chairing, or discussing, was to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. So many highlights: riding a rickshaw through Friday night rush-hour/game-night traffic; singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the seventh-innings stretch…

To coincide with the start of the new season that month, The Boston Review published a letter written by the Harvard-based political philosopher John Rawls, in 1981, in which Rawls outlined why he considered baseball to be ‘best of all games’. It turns out that baseball’s superiority to basketball, tennis, football and soccer lies in the degree to which it embodies the virtues which Rawls invested in his own theory of justice as fairness – it has a certain sort of equilibrium, contains aspects of publicity, it is inclusive of plural talents, and it has a temporal rhythm that means that “there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback”. The editors of the magazine noted that Rawls had himself once been an accomplished baseball player, and that he had made reference to baseball in his own academic writing. In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Rawls used examples from baseball to make philosophical arguments about what a practice is, and what role rules play in practices (arguments which revolve around the puzzle that running, sliding, and throwing are things people do in all sorts of situations, but that stealing base or striking out are aspects of a practice known as baseball, and yet these events are not reducible to the rules of baseball which define them). It is common enough to use games, of one sort or another, to develop arguments of this sort. I wonder if it matters which games philosophers and social theorists consider best exemplify the most fundamental aspects of human action. Rawls’ brief, half-serious analysis of baseball’s virtues is one example of how certain sports attract the attention of intellectuals – baseball and cricket are the obvious examples, both of which lend themselves to the attention of those with a certain ‘nerdy-academic’ cast of mind. Maybe it’s all the statistics, plus the veneer of ‘literariness’ that attaches itself to lots of the books about both of these sports. And in both cases, they aren’t football.

Baseball turns out to play a significant part in a recent debate between two of the heavyweights of contemporary philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, played out in the philosophy journal Inquiry in 2007 (although Dreyfus’ initiation of the debate appeared in Topoi). This debate is interesting because it serves as an example of an interesting convergence between what are often labeled Continental and Analytical traditions – Dreyfus, a leading exponent of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, stands here for ‘Continental’, McDowell for ‘Analytical’. These are problematic, even silly terms of course – Simon Glendinning has a lovely little book on this topic, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy. The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action, and differences over how far conceptual capacities extend into the world. They tend to accuse each other of clinging to unacknowledged ‘Cartesian’ dualisms, which tends to be the way with these debates – Rorty accused lots of people of this, Charles Taylor accused him of Cartesianism, and so on and so on. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual – as ‘unminded’. He accuses McDowell of still holding to ‘the myth of the mental’ by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between ‘mind and world’ teaches us that that ‘perception is conceptual all the way out’ (McDowell’s work is interesting to me not least because of just how important spatial vocabularies are to his re-casting of traditional questions of the philosophy of mind; something for which he has been taken to task for by others, such as Simon Blackburn).

Dreyfus’ position is that phenomenology, by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about it is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell then accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to separate mindedness from intuitive, embodied coping – McDowell reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality.

Now, in the middle of this exchange, the two philosophers end up arguing about Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch was an All-Star second-baseman for the all-powerful New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in 1999, Knoblauch developed a version of the ‘yips’, losing his ability to execute the quick-fire pick-up-and-throw-on-the-run-in-mid-air manoeuvres crucial to his position. Knoblauch was thinking too much, it was widely agreed at the time (he had various off-the-field issues it turns out). Dreyfus invokes Knoblauch as proof for his position, arguing that his skill levels declined because he stopped being absorbed in the activity at hand, but was instead allowing thought and reflection to intrude. Knoblauch’s ‘mental blauch’ (as headlines of the time describe it) shows that mindedness is not an aspect of the immersion involved in ongoing activities of embodied coping, so Dreyfus argues. McDowell takes issue with this reading of Knoblauch’s tribulations – according to him, this case proves his point, that the problem for coping arises when mindedness becomes detached from immersion in activity.

So it turns out that Knoblauch is central to making explicit what is at most at stake in this debate – this is a dispute between two variants of ‘non-representational’ accounts of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands as the figure for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality; McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a ‘supplementation’ to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than leading to a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping (I like McDowell’s usage of ‘supplementation’ because I have a pet hypothesis about his style of philosophy being similar methodologically to Derrida’s, in so far as it messes with the spatializations of key concepts in philosophical traditions).

The dispute about how to interpret Knoblauch’s freeze is interesting because it underscores one feature about how arguments in this style of philosophy, as well as in social theory, tend to lean on particular exemplars of what a ‘game’ is when they develop arguments about the meanings of concepts such as practice and embodied agency. There is a widely shared tendency to focus on individual, repeated acts within games – throwing, kicking, or taking free-throws in basketball. Oddly, the Dreyfus/McDowell debate might be much more narrowly focussed than Rawls’ discussion, which dates from the 1950s – they are focussed on the sliding/throwing/running aspects of baseball as discrete activities, outside of their wider place in not just particular ‘plays’, but in whole games, seasons, and beyond. Knoblauch’s problem with throwing didn’t end his career. He just got moved to the outfield; he wasn’t paid millions of dollars just as a second-baseman, but also as a batter. And the Yankees still kept winning (besides, Knoblauch has more recently been implicated in on-going scandals about endemic use of performance-enhancing steroids in professional baseball in the 1990s, which might cast an entirely different light on the episodes the philosophers disagree about).

None of which seems terribly philosophical, but it does provide a nice link to an essay by John Haugeland, another important philosopher in these debates, who died earlier this year. Haugeland has a long essay called ‘The Intentionality All-Stars’ (from 1990), re-published in his book Having Thought. He uses the fielding positions on a baseball diamond to map out different philosophical positions on the topic intentionality. He actually focuses on three main positions, using first, second and third base to differentiate thinkers like Searle, Quine, Dennett, Brandom, Heidegger and Sellars (Derrida, Rorty and others are consigned to the outfield, because they don’t really think these issues are that important – and Wittgenstein is shortstop, a joke I think about how he mediates between more rejectionist and more reconstructive positions on this classical topic). Haugeland is only using baseball here as a device to delineate these positions – it’s a mere metaphor in his essay, not part of a central philosophical argument (although he does end with a funny line nodding at Thomas Nagel about the importance of the question “What is it like to be at bat?”). A point I make only to underscore the fact that in other cases, like in Rawls or Dreyfus/McDowell, it might well matter that they use this game, rather than others, to exemplify fundamental philosophical points.

One of the things that McDowell’s position in his debate with Dreyfus suggests is that we might do well to pay heed to the sort of ‘immersed activity’ that is involved in doing intellectual work. There might be an interesting aspect of disavowal and projection involved in academics having to invoke games or dancing in order to elaborate on the relations between knowing that and knowing how (while choosing games which tend to push to the side forms of knowing-with which are implicated in both). The point is made succinctly by an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, collected in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, his essays on baseball. Gould’s essay, written contemporaneously to Knoblauch’s freeze, is called ‘The Brain of Brawn’, and refuses to buy into the straightforward dualism in which athletic excellence is presented as wholly opposed to, as either superior to or lesser than, scholarly accomplishment. Gould doesn’t want to interpret Knoblauch’s problem as the intrusion of the brain upon feeling, mind on matter either, and he draws an arresting analogy which cuts straight to the heart of the philosophical debate which Dreyfus and McDowell have more recently staged in part around Knoblauch’s trouble: “Knoblauch’s problem takes the same form as many excruciating impediments in purely mental enterprises with writer’s block as the most obvious example, when obsession with learned rules of style and grammar impedes the flow of good prose. And we surely cannot designate our unblocked mode as less intellectual merely because we cannot easily describe its delights or procedures”. Thinking well, it seems, is something that also might be embedded in intuitively grasped, not-too-reflective coping skills as well.

I’m not sure where Dreyfus and McDowell would stand exactly in Haugeland’s ballpark, although I think it’s somewhere between second and third base – in his account things get more pragmatist, phenomenological, and social as you round second. It’s probably quite crowded there. One thing the Dreyfus/McDowell exchange seems to confirm is that being ‘non-representational’ isn’t much of a discriminator these days – the issue is about different ways of being non-representational. And might it not matter just a little which game you take to be the model of having a ‘feel for the game’ when making arguments about non-representational aspects of action? The Australian philosopher John Sutton, who also works on phenomenology, distributed cognition, and the embodied mind, develops his argument with reference to cricket. More precisely, he uses batting as his favoured example. Batting in cricket is the basis for his argument about how thinking too much disrupts the accomplishment of embodied coping skills, showing how conceptual memory and procedural memory are dynamics aspects of embodied practices. They have batting in baseball too, of course, so maybe the point translates across fields, so to speak. But of course batting in these two games is not quite the same practice, it involves different sorts of coping skills. Sutton’s argument about the importance of memory seems an opening to understanding this difference, in so far as it suggests that the rhizomatic lines of flight passing through any discrete ‘at bat’ or ‘taking guard’ carry markedly different worldly resonances. And I can’t help thinking that all of these arguments amongst philosophers of embodied action might be helped by taking Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological analysis of ‘Throwing like a Girl’ a little more seriously – it reminds us that all these seemingly universal features of ‘embodiment’ and ‘coping’ might be cut through with social relations all the way down, as it were – that there is no universal phenomenological domain waiting to be exemplified by this or that particular game.

What happens in Vegas…

I feel a little like I have been ‘on tour’ for the last year or so. Since February 2009, I have presented papers at conferences, workshops or seminars in Zurich, Las Vegas, Manchester, Rome, Utrecht, Bristol, Stockholm, and Singapore. This sounds like the sort of itinerary ripe for parody along the lines of a David Lodge novel, but none of these has felt like a junket. In fact, because of relatively new childcare responsibilities that have befallen me, none of these trips involved more than four nights away from home – Las Vegas was three nights in a hotel and a trans-Atlantic overnight flight. This means that I haven’t really much of an answer when someone asks ‘What did you make of Singapore?’, because I wasn’t there long enough to even enter into the speeded-up fieldtrip to which geographers inevitably reduce any and all international conference experience. I can tell you, though, what I made of the International Communication Association (‘the ICA’), or at least the slice of if I attended. Which might seem obvious, but my point is that doing conferences in this way makes you really focus in on what it is that these sorts of gatherings are good for intellectually.

What have I learnt? Well, for a start, I have been reminded of just how much of my own serious academic reading is itinerant, as it were, done on the move, in the interstices between other activities which impose themselves on you more strongly. Travelling makes this very evident, although it’s not the only occasion when such opportunities arise – the only proper philosophy book I have read from cover to cover in the last four years is John McDowell’s Mind and World, which I read over the course of a week in January 2007 while sitting up in the early hours of the morning waiting for a very small infant to wake up and demand a bottle-feed. But travelling on buses, trains, and airplanes is, and has always been for me, an important occasion for learning, because of the amount of ‘dead time’ there is to fill (since I started driving to work, in 2003, I have felt this all the more, since driving a car is really not conducive to reading difficult theory; I have managed to listen to the podcast of Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture course on Heidegger while zooming along the A420, but I’m not so sure much of it really stuck).

I have also learnt, or re-learnt, the oddities of ‘disciplinarity’. In Rome, I took part in an intensive workshop, funded by an EU grant of some sort, in which most of the other participants came from Politics departments, but turned out to have far greater ‘intra-disciplinary’ hang-ups (between political theorists and IR scholars, between the normative and the empirical, for example) than one finds in geography. So here, I was very definitely The Geographer, which was a bit strange. This event was a great social experience; we all experienced three nights of detailed tutoring in how to eat Italian food properly. This sounds like a terrible, Lodge-like cliché, but actually this was an important aspect of making this event work, for me at least: we were spending the days discussing pre-circulated papers, each of which had a designated discussant, with a view to working the dozen or so pieces into chapters for an edited collection. This is difficult to pull off amongst people who have never met each other before. It was important to spend some time with one’s fellow workshoppers, if only as a sort of coercive force of academic propriety – it is difficult to either rip to shreds someone else’s paper, or to be too quick to take offense by critical remarks on one’s own, if you have to sit next to them choosing sugary desserts a few hours later.

I do have to say that it has been amongst folks from Politics, broadly thought of, that I have experienced the most disciplinary clunkiness over the last year, in the sense of being positioned most clearly as coming from the outside, as a Geographer. In Utrecht, shortly before Christmas, I attended a workshop on media and cosmopolitanism, which was actually more diverse than the Rome event, including film theorists, legal theorists, political philosophers, and sociologists. But in this company, I didn’t seem an oddity – I suspect people working on media issues are much more used to coming across, and stealing from, other disciplinary perspectives. Or, to put the contrast differently, I suspect the ‘disciplinarity’ of some disciplines is much more internally cohesive than some others – fields like development studies, media studies, geography, or urban and regional studies are, certainly, definable fields and disciplines, but what might account for their observable outlines are the settled patterns of exchange, borrowing and external influence which characterise them. This sense was underscored by my brief time in Singapore, at the ICA conference. I felt quite at home at the ICA, or at least the bits I attended – I had been invited on the assumption that I could talk to other scholars interested in media, culture, democracy, neoliberalism, that sort of thing, and we shared the same reference points, the same sensibilities. I heard some great papers, and actually felt more at home than I sometimes do in critical human geography – people here were talking about Robert Brandom (not kindly), Axel Honneth (much more kindly), and there was a great session on the theme of listening as a medium of public communication and democracy (see http://www.thelisteningproject.net/). One of the things I most enjoyed about the ICA was the sense that a bunch of the people in the sessions I was involved in were struggling to find ways out of some fairly staid, predictable, disabling styles of doing academic ‘critique’ – ways of being critical which remain rather resolutely entrenched in ‘critical human geography’, where too many people seem satisfied with a shared sense that we all already know what we don’t like.

So my conferencing has, over the last year or so, been much more concentrated than in the past, but this has helped me appreciate how much serious work goes on in these events, as well as reminding me of just where I feel most comfortable. And I have, more or less inadvertently, managed to pick up one or two things about ‘local’ customs along the way, despite my tight schedule. For the Utrecht trip, I arrived in early Christmas, and didn’t immediately register that the airport at Schiphol seemed to be full of people in ‘blackface’, dressed as vaguely seasonal-looking minstrels. This turns out to be Zwarte Piet, a Dutch (and Flemish) sidekick to the proper St. Nicholas (not Santa Claus). The Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ day on the 5th and 6th December, so here we all were, gathered to discuss cosmopolitanism, media, and representation (with appropriate references to Deleuze, Boltanski, Derrida), amidst this big national celebration replete with racist caricatures (on one interpretation, at least). Opinion amongst the participants seemed a bit divided – the guy who ran the fantastic radical bookshop which hosted a book launch the night I arrived (De Rooie Rat) had played Zwarte Piet at his kids school that afternoon, and defended doing so on the grounds that ‘the kids really love him’. Which was kind of disarming, actually. I wonder if Dutch people arriving in England on November 5th wonder why we are all engaging in anti-Catholic rituals involving burning human figures on the top of bonfires.

Zwarte Piet was a surprising challenge to certain presumptions about liberal Dutch culture. I’m not sure I was as outraged as one or two of the local academics expected; rather, my response was along the lines of “Really? Still!”.

I had an equally surprising encounter, but of a different sort, in Las Vegas, where I was attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (‘The AAG’). This is the biggest gathering of English-language academic geography, and it’s a big, proper US-style scientific conference (although also oddly anarchic in its organisation). I actually found Las Vegas to be a terrible conference location – no coffee shops to escape to, where one can revise and rehearse the paper you are meant to give later in the week. I did have one great encounter, but it was in the shuttle bus back to the airport on the morning I left to come home. The shuttle turned out to have a ‘limo’-style interior, complete with a pole-dancing pole – obviously trips to the airport were not the only thing this vehicle was used for. All the other passengers on board for my trip to the airport were women, and there were a few raised eyebrows about the pole as we boarded. But these remarks had a certain knowingness about them, and as the ride started, these women, a dozen or so ordinary, ‘middle class’ Americans, entered into an extended conversation about what they had learnt in their week in Las Vegas. They all seemed to either know one another, or to be part of the same organisation. And their conversation consisted of a weird combination of matter-of-fact business talk about sales figures and future projections, and, well, sex toys. Now, I am actually quite shy, but as this conversation developed around me, I felt obliged to ask just what it was these women did. It turns out they were all reps for Passion Parties, which is the US’s largest ‘sensual products’ party plan company – these women had been attending the annual conference, the company being based in Las Vegas. Technically, I think the women I was sharing the shuttle with are ‘Consultants’ – they arrange, and sometimes host, women-only parties where, well, ‘sensual products’ are sold. In the UK, Ann Summers, the high street sex toy and lingerie shop, has a roughly equivalent line of business (apparently). These women, on my shuttle, had a great analysis of the geographies of their corner of the economy – during the ride, it was established that selling products in the South took a lot longer than in California – ladies in the Bible Belt passion-partied at a more leisurely pace than those on the West Coast, it was agreed. These women also had a complex analysis of the uncertainty of their business in a recession – couples would be staying in more in the evenings in economically straightened times. But they were also aware that they might find themselves adjusting downwards their own expectations of what people could afford in tough times, risking ‘underselling’. They also all agreed that a tighter economy risked heightening the tension they all felt that they had to negotiate, between engaging with the women who attended their parties as both friends and customers.

This was one of those encounters that had me wondering for a moment if there wasn’t a research project to be done on the economic and cultural geographies of Passion Parties. Then I thought better of it. I’m not sure I believe any more that critical social science is really equal to the sort of understanding that phenomenon like Zwarte Piet and Passion Parties really require. That would entail having a theory of fun.

Collecting My Thoughts

This time last year we moved house, and I found myself re-reading a well-known essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It’s a lovely piece for anyone with an unhealthy attachment, of some sort, to books, of whatever kind, as artefacts. The essay is about the prosthetics of thought and memory, which is a common enough theme I guess, but what is really distinctive about Benjamin’s essay is how he captures the active sense of ‘collecting’ books as a habitual mode of thinking, rather than fixating on the contents of a fixed collection once acquired.

Benjamin’s essay is really quite funny in exposing the nerdiness involved in acquiring books as a process of thought, but in a serious sort of way. The aspect of the essay that rings most true for me is the sense of chance and coincidence that book-buying and book-browsing implies about how one’s own engagement with ‘Theory’ works. He articulates this around the idea of book collecting as a way  of investigating new cities: “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Unpacking the library is packed-full of memories, and regrets – for books half-finished, writing-projects never even begun.

The places which are evoked by unpacking my books were often more prosaic than those with which Benjamin was most familiar, although I do have favourite bookshop memories from cities like Paris, Stockholm, Cape Town, or Chicago. More often, though, the places my books evoke are towns like East Grinstead or Cirencester (the town where I can first remember buying a book for myself, in a now defunct Woolworths; You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, it cost 50p, new). Of course, unpacking books, or just rearranging them, also evokes memories of bookshops which are no more, like Oxford Books in Atlanta, my first experience of a real American bookstore (books and coffee, what a smell!), or Compendium Books in Camden Town, a bookshop so important in shaping the thoughts of an entire generation of British Theory-heads that is was obituarised in Radical Philosophy when it closed.

Our house move last year involved relocating to the weird and not-so-wonderful town of Swindon, and one of the things that was reconciling me to this was the knowledge that at least there was a big Borders on the outskirts of town. The week we moved, it was announced that it was going to close (much to the anger of local residents, many of whom really appreciated the Starbucks upstairs – there are not so many places in that part of town for new mums to hang-out with prams; the Starbucks has survived, only now it is upstairs in a shiny new branch of New Look). Earlier this year, just to make me feel even better, the Oxfam book and record store in town also closed down. Swindon now has fewer bookstores than East Grinstead, the town I grew up in, with dreams of leaving for more bookish places.

Oxfam bookstores sell second-hand books, but they are run along the lines of commercial second-hand bookshops (not a little controversially). Where we lived before moving to Swindon, in what one of our friends and fellow residents once described to us as the ‘Guardian-and Tofu-Ghetto’ of Bishopston, in Bristol, we were a five minute walk up the hill from an Amnesty bookshop. Amnesty bookshops get all their books from donations, so unlike Oxfam shops, their books are dead cheap. I’ve come to realise that this bookshop has had a powerful influence in shaping how I think as an academic over the last decade. It’s located on the Gloucester Road, the faintly alternative heart of independent retailing in North Bristol, equidistant from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England – Bishopston is, according to census data, the most educated ward in the whole country (containing a high proportion of geography professors prolific in theorising about neoliberalism too). All of which means the Amnesty shop has this high turnover of lots of academic books of a particular vintage. This shop is a veritable repository of the ‘long-tail’ of a certain sort of British left-sociological culture of the 1970s through the 1990s. It is never without a copy of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, or Richard Hoggart’s The Use of Literary. There is also a regular supply of complete sets of OU Social Science or Humanities courses books, as students finish one year’s study before moving on to the next level (at least, that’s what we all hope if we work at the OU). Sometimes, books with the names of an academic with whose work you are actually familiar appear – books owned by Jean Grimshaw, the feminist philosopher, or Peter Haggett, the geographer.

I have come to cherish this bookshop like no other I know, primarily because of the promise of stumbling across something I didn’t even know I might want to read which will only cost £1.50, at most. I once bought a box full of volumes of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works, not the whole set mind, the Progress Publishers editions from Moscow published by Lawrence and Wishart, for £15, which worked out at about 90p a volume (I turned up the chance of buying the box of Lenin as well). Most of these are not volumes you would want to read, unless you are inclined to do a PhD on Engels’ fascination with military strategy and hardware (and it turns out that, like some of us cheap academic hacks these days, Marx and Engels both helped make ends meet by writing entries for Encyclopedias – my favourite is Engels little piece on ‘The Camp’, pre-dating Agamben on that topic by more than a century; although even he doesn’t mention that this is actually the name of a small hamlet in the Costwolds, as you drive out of the Stroud valley towards Cheltenham and Gloucester).

This is the only academic bookstore I know of where you can buy classics of modern social thought for 50p, often with the added value of someone else already having annotated the best bits for you; I have never spent more than £4 on a book here. Sometimes, you do come across a recent, up-to-date volume. I bought a copy of Twenty Theses on Politics here a few months ago (I still go back to visit), by Enrique Dussel, the leading political philosopher and theorist of contemporary Latin American politics (See http://www.enriquedussel.org/Home_en.html). I had heard of him before, never read anything by him, but there it was, a couple of quid, almost new. But mostly, the books I buy in this shop are older ones, maybe collections of political writings by Weber, old editions of Goffman, that sort of thing. But it is not just the age of the books you find in the Amnesty shop that accounts for their odd combination of intellectual appeal and cheapness – these are not antique volumes, or first editions of any value. These are the books that other academics, teachers, former students or educated lay readers have decided not worth keeping any more. By arriving here, on these shelves, they attest in their own way to their own lack of contemporary resonance, or at least this estimation by those who have chosen to give them away. It’s not just the unlikely student of Engels’ later works who might find an archive of materials here, but anyone who wants to reconstruct the debates on the left of the early and mid-1980s around Thatcherism, often Marxism Today-led conversations which still assumed that Labour might win an election in 1987 or 1988; or the excitement which Glasnost and Perestroika provoked for a reorientation of left-thinking; or the infusion of Marxist ideas into social work or education theory in the 1970s; or the literature of the anti-psychiatry movement (but not Foucault – nobody seems to donate Foucault books for free; he still resonates, clearly). The pamphlets and little magazines out of which New Labour emerged, or the extensive, theoretically sophisticated historiographical anthropological analyses of Southern African politics generated by and around the anti-apartheid movement – all of this can be gathered up from this shop, if you are willing to bide your time.

I haven’t invested my pennies (it wouldn’t be much more) in acquiring any of these archives, although each one would make for an intellectually challenging and valuable project. But I have certainly back-filled some of the holes left by own education-in-Theory over the last decade by buying a book every week or so from this shop, although I’m not to admit which holes. Returning to Benjamin, then, I like to think of this little shop as providing a twist to his tactical image of book collecting – here, collecting other people’s cast-offs is a way of travelling back into recent intellectual pasts, of measuring the unacknowledged distance between then and now, of getting a glimpse of what once seemed possible or plausible yet now seems nothing more than embarrassing, but also, perhaps a little more optimistically, of noticing the little advances or shifts in culture that have rendered certain sorts of critical, theoretical elucidation slightly less pressing.

Rethinking the Public

Just a plug for a newly published collection of essays I helped edit with Nick Mahony and Janet Newman, Rethinking the Public, which explores different dimensions of contemporary processes of public formation, with case studies ranging from contemporary UK policy debates to colonial India, modern Brazil, and current ‘global’ activism. The chapters are written by bright new things, PhD students or recently completed PhD’s, and cover a range of fields in which questions of who or what constitutes a public are at stake – policy studies, media theory, urban studies and human geography, development studies, political theory, sociology.

Details of how to obtain a copy can be found at the Policy Press website: http://www.policypress.co.uk/display.asp?k=9781847424167

The book develops out of an ESRC-funded research project on the theme of Emergent Publics, which has informed ongoing research initiatives amongst a group of scholars more or less loosely affiliated to the OU’s Public Research Programme in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance: http://www.open.ac.uk/ccig/

‘Why theory?’

This site is a space in which to think out loud about other people’s ideas, particularly the sort of ideas which might, or might not, be considered to qualify as ‘Theory’. It is shaped by a sense that, as someone else once said, “I have nothing to say, only to add”. Or, it might be thought of as the confessions of a sedentary geographer. I’m going to use this site to try to articulate some of the more anecdotal dimensions of what is involved in inhabiting the particular intellectual habitus that I find myself in, however one might define that – the world of Anglo-American critical human geography, if we stick to disciplines, but more broadly, that strange rhizomatic world once called ‘cultural studies’ or ‘Theory’, and all else that has followed.  And just to get us off on the right footing, I should say that by referring to ‘anecdotal’ here, I am gesturing towards the spirit, as I understand it, of Jane Gallop’s book Anecdotal Theory.

I work at the Open University, in Milton Keynes, UK, in the Geography Department. I live in Swindon.