Favourite Thinkers VII: Iris Marion Young

Picture 092Noticing, rather belatedly I now realise, that the last book by Iris Marion Young had been published got me reflecting on the different encounters I have had with her work over the years, making me feel old, and slow, but also making me realise that sometimes thinkers act as helpful companions. I have always found, on reading Young, that she had got somewhere I wanted to be well before I arrived there, but I have also found this kind of affirming – she is one of the thinkers who always reassured me that I wasn’t completely on the wrong track. So I have been reconstructing ‘my life with Iris’, which does, oddly, include one occasion when I met her in person.

I think my first encounter was in late 1989 – I was in my first term as a graduate student, and this was the moment of postmodernism in geography: Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies had been published earlier that year, shortly before I took my Finals as an undergraduate; the week I started as a graduate student, David Harvey’s much awaited (by me anyway) The Condition of Postmodernity was published (this is the last book I read before getting glasses; actually, I started it without glasses, but was wearing glasses by the time I finished). Shortly after this, I was leant an advance copy of the collection Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson (which might just be one of the most influential books, in a more or less unacknowledged way, in geography of the last 25 years or so). This was a revelation – it opened a door into a world where though ‘postmodernism’ was still used as a term, people were talking about more serious things in more serious ways – deconstruction, phenomenology, post-structuralism. I’m not sure that I ever took discussions of ‘postmodernism’ in geography terribly seriously again, all a bit too Rorty-lite as they were, after reading this book, which included essays by Young, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway. I remember around that time reading Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl’ in a reading group that some of us had set up , and remember too that  the argument in it resonated because, well, I’m a boy who never could throw quite well enough – a slightly different subject-position, as we all learnt to say about that time, from the one primarily intended by Young’s analysis of gendered embodiment.

What particularly sticks in my mind as a turning-point, intellectually, for me is coming across a copy of Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference in a bookshop in 1990. In October to be precise – more or less systematically, I put the date in the front of books when I get them. Around this time, I was trying to start ethnographic research which somehow was meant to keep together various things I was interested in – space, gender, money, urbanism, culture, language, all sorts really. I gave this up, for various reasons, but partly it was because Young’s book impressed upon me the sense that there were a set of theoretical traditions it might be fun to engage with in greater depth than discussions about ‘postmodernism’ seemed to allow. So, alongside Robert Young’s White Mythologies, Justice and the Politics and Difference set me off in the direction of doing a reading-based dissertation all about deconstruction, discourse theory, Foucault, Ricoeur, postcolonialism Said, Spivak. (The two Youngs, Iris and Robert, also strike me now as exemplary figures whose work gets subjected to a certain style of reading in geography – finding someone talking about ‘spatial’ or ‘geographical’ things, but then finding them not quite up to scratch, not materialist enough perhaps, lacking an adequately sophisticated grasp of the wobbliness of spatiality, that sort of thing. Sometimes, most of the time perhaps, there are more interesting things to talk about than space, spatiality, and the like).

Picture 041Over time, I came to work out just how smart Young’s use of Derrida, Levinas, Irigary to re-read notions of public space in more affective registers was – I ended up writing about this in my book, Culture and Democracy (pages 60 to 65 if you’re really interested), but really didn’t have much to say on these issues that Young had not already got to in developing the notion of communicative democracy, in Inclusion and Democracy for example.  I’m not sure whether one should admit it, but sometimes, in a field like mine, ‘critical exegesis’ is shaped primarily by the commitments of the fan. 

Young’s response to David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is also a key reference point for another thought I now take almost for granted. Reading this in Antipode in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, what I took away was the insistence on thinking of universal notions of justice or rights as, well, discursive, that is, in terms of claims. That is, I think, a much more political understanding of universality than one finds in most other places, but also a more redeemably ‘universal’ notion of universality because of its concern with the to-ing and fro-ing of claim-making.  More generally, it was, for me at least, a precursor to thinking about claims as an important register for thinking about practices of representation or responsibility, or democracy more generally, an idea I have tried to articulate myself, but which other people like my former colleague Mike Saward or John Parkinson have smarter versions of than me.

When I started work at Bristol, in the early 2000s, I tried to teach Young alongside more obvious geographical literature on justice, by Harvey, David Smith and so on – not least, I think by then I was working out that her work did rather different things with a Rawlsian line of thought than you got in geography, where Rawls was either summarily dismissed as ‘liberal’ (an accusation that I have come to think reflects more negatively on the person making it than on the person so accused), or taken as providing a universal model to be applied to empirical situations.

In 2003, during the long Easter weekend in Durban, when most of the country seems to close down completely, I actually met Iris Young, visiting as a guest of Raphael Kadt, then editor of the journal Theoria – a few of us, Di Scott, Jenny Robinson, Murray Low, spent an afternoon in the garden of Gill Hart’s house in Musgrave, drinking wine and eating nibbles. I admit to having been more than a little bit star-struck.

IMG_4846Then in the late summer of 2003, Marion Werner, who had been a Masters student at Bristol that year, left a copy of Dissent in my pigeon-hole, pointing me in the direction of an essay by Young on a social connection model of responsibility in relation to labour solidarity campaigns. This was another ‘Wow’ moment, and I have spent the last decade shamefully ripping-off Young’s model of political responsibility in various research and writing projects. When I started at the OU, later that same year, I did my best to get Young’s account of responsibility adopted as the framework for the course on globalisation that we were making then. Later, in 2004 or 2005 we approached her to do an audio interview for the OU globalisation course, but she was unable to do so, because she was by then already dealing with her illness, from which she died in 2006. Her influence does, though, resonate across that course and various pieces of work by myself and others who engaged with it at that time. Her influence is reflected in the idea that structures that course – globalisation is a process that is realised through demands and responses that different actors make on each other. The responsibility theme also provided an important reference point for the project on ethical consumption that I worked on at this time too – Young’s ideas on the distribution of responsibility across extended fields of action provide the intellectual ballast at the front and end of the book from this project.

Most recently, in writing about justice and responsibility and ethics in geography, I have tried to be more explicit than before about what it is that Young’s work brings to the debates that geographers engage with, or at least draw from. Her concept of political responsibility comes into better focus if you triangulate it, for example, with Cohen’s work on justice and Pogge’s working up of the idea of a global basic structure. I also noticed around the time of writing these pieces that Young, like one or two other thinkers I was reading, made more or less explicit reference to Pettit’s account of republican freedom as non-domination in working up her account of responsibility – one day, if I have time, I’d like to delve deeper into that relationship in the case of Young’s ideas and others. I think, in particular, what is of most value is the theme of shared responsibility that Young develops across all the work on the idea of justice and responsibility over the last decade or so of her life: this is a lot smarter than the standard move of simply asserting that one needs to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility (which kind of closes down problems of effective agency in its knock-down simplicity). By bringing into view differential capacities to act responsibly, it is a resolutely political but not moralising notion of responsibility. And if you can’t find something of ‘geographical’ value in this work, something which does not need simply to be corrected, then you just aren’t trying.

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