This week’s Pop (Theory) Quiz

Or, random quotes hanging around my desk.

Who said this? 

“Between the Charybdis of unconditional reflection and the Scylla of the dead weight of custom lies the vast landscape where our critically reflective games of freedom have their home”

And who said this?

“Reasons do not swim about like globules of fat on the soup of consciousness”.

Pssst.. it wasn’t him over there.

Geography Matters!

A shout-out for Geography Matters, the Facebook page looked after by my colleague Melissa Butcher, designed as “a site for promoting geography research and teaching”, not only, it should be said, the research and teaching of geography at the OU. It’s more like a ‘hub’ for things of interest, geography-wise. The place to go if you’re looking for geography-friends.

Amongst other things, you will find a link there to the website of another of my colleagues, Joe Smith, introducing 10 short films on climate change.

The Umbrella Man

This little film by Errol Morris about The Umbrella Man in Deeley Plaza sort of captures all of the themes of the last few days’ blogs: protest, conspiracy, uncertain knowledge, the meaning of events changing with the passage of time, dodgy policing. Wonderful – thanks, Mark, for the link.

Demonstrative Theory

Current events ‘out there’, in the streets no less, have been an occasion for the rehearsal of various theoretical standpoints on the meaning of democracy and the status of politics. Some writers have presented recent politicizations of public space as models of a purity of political action consisting of the expressive presence of bodies in space, as confirming both that this is all that is left politically and that this is what is most proper to left politics (a shout-out here for my old friend Andrew Merrifield, who provides a most eloquent variant on this theme in the latest New Left Review). I’m in no position to evaluate or assess the contours of these movements (there is no Occupy Swindon movement, nor do I expect there one to be anytime soon), but there is something about this sort of interpretation that doesn’t quite ring true for me.

There are some interesting blog discussions sparked by a piece at Critical Inquiry’s new blog site on Occupy Theory. What this piece raised for me was the question of how far one thinks of theory as essentially an interpretative device, used to give meaning to an event or events; or how far one thinks of theory as a hypothesis generating machine, something that raises questions about an event. There is a new site at Possible Futures that does some of this latter sort of theory work, including essays by Saskia Sassen and Craig Calhoun (newly announced as the next Director of the LSE – what a great appointment). Calhoun’s piece, for example, raises some interesting questions about how policing of protest has changed time. At TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit has a piece about the Occupy movement in the US connects with longer traditions of civil society and non-violence movements, and this reminded me of arguments about the idea of the US in particular as a ‘movement society’ – there are interesting generational effects at work behind these protest movements which deserve more attention.

The fascination with the occupation of real space also surely needs to be put in the context of how this form of ‘presencing’ reverberates through other spaces, including mediated ones (it was all kicked-off by Adbusters, remember), but also through time, and above, there is the vexed question of how this moment of protest (not just the Occupy example, but also the return of street protest in Egypt) interacts with the sequencing of electoral cycles. Given the likely geographical dynamics of the 2012 US Presidential election, for example, it is interesting to speculate on how far the populist sentiments expressed by the Occupy movement will be articulated in the coming year, and by which side. Sidney Tarrow had an interesting little piece in Foreign Policy a month or so ago, on OWS as a ‘we are here’ movement akin to the women’s movement, the point being about the long-term effects of this ‘event’. Tarrow and Doug McAdam also have an interesting piece on the relationship between social movement scholarship and electoral studies, from 2010, but which is rather prescient in light of recent events in the USA – one of their points is that analysis of movements tends to be overly movement-centric, and underplays the role of electoral politics in generating and orienting non-electoral, non-party mobilisations, campaigns and protests: this point appears to be well supported by the resurgence of protest in Egypt these last few days, as Mariz Tadros argues at the IDS blog, in which the relationship between street mobilizations and elections is central.

What did happen to Peter Pumpkinhead?

My three favourite books on the Kennedy assassination:

William Manchester’s The Death of a President.  Utterly compelling, minute-by-minute account, I read this in one sitting at a cricket ground in Eastbourne in the summer of 1985. It may or may not be good history, in fact it’s really part of what the event became subsequently as history, but it’s a great read.

Don DeLillo’s Libra. The book the film of which didn’t get made because of Oliver Stone, apparently, according to some stories, which is a shame. One of the few novels I’ve ever read more than once (actually, the only other one is Less than Zero). Has something in it for everyone, conspiracists and Warrenistas (I just made those terms up).

Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History. The book for grown-ups.

If I had the time, I would try to make a case for why reading lots about this is actually quite significant philosophically – conspiracy theories raise interesting epistemological issues you know. But I don’t have the time. And it would be a bit embarrassing to do so. If you don’t have time to read those books today, then you might always listen to The Wedding Present’s Kennedy, The Human League’s Seconds, or The Fall’s Oswald Defence Lawyer (there are other relevant pop songs, I’m sure, but between them, these three just about cover it all). Or try to find a recording of Lenny Bruce’s shtick on Jackie Kennedy ‘hauling ass’.

Pop (Theory) Quiz

Who said this?

“We can think of emancipatory social science as an account of a
journey from the present to a possible future: the critique of society tells
us why we want to leave the world in which we live; the theory of alternatives
tells us where we want to go; and the theory of transformation
tells us how to get from here to there.”

And who said this?

“the only law for book publication, the only law concerning the book that I would like to see passed, would be to prohibit the use of the author’s name more than once, with the additional right to anonymity and the use of pseudonyms, in order that each book might be read for itself. There are books for which recognition of the author provides the key to their intelligibility. But outside of a few great authors, this knowledge of the author’s name has no real use. It serves only as a screen. For someone like me, who is not a great author but only someone who writes books, books ought to be read for themselves, with their imperfections and their possible good qualities.”

And finally, who said this?

“To my mind, the realms of ethics and politics can be neither divided nor conflated. Ethics deals with such questions as human values, purposes, relationships, qualities of behaviour, motives for action while politics raises the question of what material conditions, power-relations and social institutions we need in order to foster certain of these values and qualities and not others. This is nothing to do with the relation between spiritual and material or personal and public.”

Local Politics VI: Where is the University of Christminster?

Bodleian Library, Keypoint, Swindon (Brian Robert Marshall) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Part of the history of civic boosterism in Swindon is a long and largely unsuccessful story of attempts to establish a University presence in the town – in the last decade, schemes involving both UWE and Bath have fallen through; Oxford Brookes has a small presence, and BPP has a pilot scheme with a local FE college to roll-out low cost degree programmes (in Law). The efforts to establish a University go back to the 1940s at least – it’s why the Borough Council own a big old stately home just off Junction 16 of the M4, with a great kids play area, an annual firework display, but no University. And these efforts continue – Swindon will be bidding for a University Technical College any time soon.

I have previously expounded on the frustrations of living in a town which is so poorly served by book shops. This has something to do with the absence of a higher education presence in the town, no doubt. But actually, Swindon does have a huge book store, opened a year ago. The only problem is, it’s a book store, not a bookstore – a Book Storage Facility, to be precise. And not just any old Book Storage Facility.

Should a University ever arrive, it will open in a town that is host to more than 8 million books deposited in the Bodleian’s shiny new warehouse, located just off the A420, round the corner from Honda. The Book Storage Facility is Oxford University’s solution to the fact that the Bodleian’s collection grows by about 170,000 volumes a year, and they had run out of space in Oxford to house them all.  It was opened a year ago, and the books have been transferred over the last year. It is home to mostly ‘low demand’ books – the one’s no one ever borrows.

The ‘BSF’ has been described as a ‘tin shed’, but it continues in a line of high quality industrial architecture in the town – it is that kind of town.

Local politicians got very excited when it was announced that the University 30 miles up the road was going to store it’s unwanted books here. This is actually quite sad – there was a rather fanciful suggestion that the new Central Library would be able to hook up with the Bodleian collection. Not happened. Perhaps the Borough Council should just appropriate the BSF, declare it to be the public property of the people of Swindon, and set up its own University on the back of one of the world’s best collections of scholarly materials. Call it the University of Christminster. It could work.

I actually find this all a bit cruel – they close the Borders a few weeks after we move here, then open a huge warehouse full of books down the road, which you cannot actually access. I used to take an annual visit to the Bookbarn in Somerset, south of Bristol on the way to Wells – a place where old books go to die, I think of it as. Two agricultural warehouses full of musty old books, I very rarely bought anything – these really are the books no one wants to read anymore (you could, though, buy the entire collection of Enoch Powell’s speeches from the 1960s and 1970s, if you were looking for an archive for a PhD thesis). My daughter cried the one time I took her there (what do you do on the days when you have to look after a toddler?). It was probably the smell. But at least you get to go in this warehouse full of books, to wonder round, sit down for a coffee.

Never mind. I console myself with the thought that as I drive up and down the A420, to and from Milton Keynes, some of those white vans might be transporting rare manuscripts to eager scholars waiting in the Radcliffe Camera or the Map Room. Who knows, one of them might even be transporting that rarest of rare ‘low demand’ items – one of my books.