My Loss Library

RPostI mentioned way back now, before Christmas, a book that I picked up when I was in Bloemfontein, The Loss Library and other unfinished stories, a collection by Ivan Vladislavic about “stories I imagined but could not write or started to write but not finish” – stories from which characters wandered off into other stories, or from which episodes escaped to turn up in other novels. Of course, by writing a book about these ‘failures’ and false starts, Vladislavic has managed at least in part to cash-out the original intuitions behind these characters, episodes, and plot-lines, if only at a tangent to his original intentions.

I have been confronted with my own loss library, of sorts, in the last couple of weeks, as I have been going through piles of paper in boxes and draws as I prepare for an office move. I have been doing quite a good job of throwing lots of paper out – unread photocopied journal articles on topics I once imagined I might need to know about for imagined projects which now, at this juncture in life, I am confidently able to say that I will never get around to even starting. And then there are the remnants of projects started but never finished, of half-written papers, of book proposals not picked-up by publishers, of unsuccessful research grant bids.

– There are my first, unsuccessful bids for ESRC funding (on publishing and global culture, on food and media), and failed bids for research in South Africa (on media and understandings of crime and violence, for example).

– There are uncompleted grant proposals (on notions of European identity in city of culture programmes, the trace of a year-long conversation with Denise Meredyth about governmentality and cultural policy.

Scan 130690012-15– There are unwritten papers, on the ‘sexing’ of communications technologies in First Amendment jurisprudence, an idea developed during a summer spent in the Law School library at Ohio State in 1998; notes and drafts of a paper on the ‘normalization’ of apartheid in academic debates about South African democratization in the mid-1990s, fragments of lunch-time conversations with Kevin Cox that same summer; drafts of a jointly authored paper with Peris Jones on the strange career of BopTV, the television station of the ‘independent’ homeland of Bophuthatswana, which survived until the late 1990s, and which we thought could serve as an interesting entry-point to think about the politics of regionalism after the end of apartheid.

– There are notes of some initial research at the BBC archives at Caversham, in Reading (I didn’t like the idea of travelling too far to an archive), on the role of Lord Reith in the early history of South African broadcasting (Reith travelled to South Africa in 1934, to advise on the setting-up of a broadcasting service which would enhance the development of ‘the Union’ (Reith’s diaries from this trip consist mainly of griping about the quality of the service he experienced on his travels).

None of these projects are completely off the wall, in retrospect: they seem to be examples of me working out ideas about media, South Africa, democracy, cultural policy, Foucault, textual publics, that sort of thing, the sorts of things I did (and sometimes still do) worry about and have worked on through other projects. There does seem to be a strain of my former self trying to find ways of writing in a more sustained way about popular culture, which perhaps I have never quite found the courage to do. Maybe that’s what one should do on a blog?

If piles of paper and files of unfulfilled projects are part of my ‘extended mind’, or the ‘prosthesis’ of my own ‘individuation’ (depending on what theory you favour), then what will happen to me if I throw out these traces of ambition and failure?

Favourite Thinkers VIII: Wasting my life with Jonathan Lethem

Venice.jpgA while ago now, I mentioned a coffee-table book I had been given about the ideal bookshelf. One of the contributors to this was Jonathan Lethem, who I may or may not have known about before. But we’ll come back to that. Lethem’s books also appeared on quite a few of the ideal bookshelves of other contributors to this volume, I seem to remember. I particularly liked Lethem’s thoughts on his choices of favourite books (not one of which I have read). I underlined this:

“The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passed the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it – it’s just an excellent way to waste your life”.

I’ve ended up spending quite a lot of time in the company of Lethem, more or less accidentally bumping into some of his books over the last couple of months. Over Easter, in Covent Garden, I bought a copy of his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, under pressure from a 6 year old imploring me to hurry up and choose something. I bought it on the basis of the title, the colourful spine, and the vague recollection of the author’s name, and because it seemed to include essays on things like Otis Redding and Devo. It’s what Lethem calls a ‘bloggish book’ of short reviews, essays, and one or two fiction pieces, ranging from serious subjects like living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11 to a range of pop culture reflections on topics such as discovering The Go-Betweens. The title essay is a little manifesto on the creativity of copying, borrowing, and re-using – first published in Harper’s Magazine, it performs a grand exercise of plagiarism in developing ideas about the gift economy and public commons as the dynamic source of cultural life (the ideas and practice are further developed in Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials, which you can find out about along with other bits and pieces at Lethem’s website.

A week later, I came across a collection of his short stories while on holiday in Devon (the third surprising encounter within 10 minutes while strolling down the main street in Totnes), and then, a couple of days later, still on holiday, found a copy of one of his novels, Motherless Brooklyn, a great ‘crime novel’ of sorts.

DomeHaving spent some time with Lethem while on holiday, I then enjoyed his company again while in LA for a conference at the beginning of April. At The Last Bookstore, I found a copy of The Disappointment Artist, another non-fiction collection, but with a more coherent theme, a series of semi-autobiographical reflections on his attachments to things like comics, or pop music, or the films of John Cassavetes (that’s a great bookstore by the way, playing the soundtrack from Friday Night Lights while I was there, which was lovely). One thing I like about Lethem’s writing is a recurring concern with this issue of attachment, attunement, obsession, and immersion in specific cultural worlds – life as lived through the medium of fandom, being taken over by a series of works of some sort.

When I got back from LA, I then noticed that one of the books that Amazon had been prompting me to buy for a while was a book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. This is just one in a series of books on ‘classic’ albums, not the sort of thing I normally read at all (honest). Now though, having spent the previous month acquainting myself with Lethem, I noticed that the author of this little book was none other than the very same Jonathan Lethem. My algorithmic avatar suddenly coincided exactly with my situational self.

Scan 130200001-2The Fear of Music book is really excellent, if you like the sort of thing that Lethem likes, which it seems that I do, to a certain extent at least. He writes about the record by tacking back and forth between the experience of listening to it in 1979 as a 15 year old and his current, adult self. So, it turns out not just to be a nerdy fan book at all, in so far as it develops a serious account of the relations between one’s old, current, and next self. Writing about this record in the space between ‘the boy in his room’ and ‘the aging fan writing these words’, Lethem brings to light the degree to which avowals of cultural authority, taste, and judgment often turn on the performance of knowingness that is a disavowal of processes of learning and discovery – expressed in the the trick, or is it a temptation, of appearing to always already have known about an artist, or a chain of influences, or a line of significance that, in fact, one once knew nothing about, and which came after one’s initial seizure by a work: “The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. Or a lie. Unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light”. This theme of the knowing character of cultural taste is a feature of other essays by Lethem I have read, including ‘Dancing about architecture’, where he writes about the dorky knowingness of being a fan, where being able to spot influences and point out references to other sources is analysed as “a revenge of the seduced”. One way of processing one’s own capture by a song, a band, a novelist, a theorist perhaps, is to place one’s pleasure into a wider context of knowledge and prior disposition – it’s a way of acknowledging the force of the attraction while presenting this as something that still somehow remains under one’s own control.

Most recently, in Liverpool a couple of weekends ago, I came across another of Lethem’s novels, The Fortress of Solitude, again while stealing a minute from one of my children to book browse (or was it sharing a minute?). It’s about growing up in Brooklyn, again, and being a fan, and gentrification, and about not quite knowing what’s going on.

So I feel like Lethem is my new imaginary friend, he seems to share some of the same tastes as me, in films (I like Westerns too), in music, in literary theory, though he is, inevitably, smarter and more clued in than me on all these things and others. He seems like the older brother I never had; or needed. And he has a nice way of articulating the relations between learning, knowing, and pretending that make up whole worlds of intellectual anxiety and authority.

And I also identify with the idea of ‘used bookstore lag’ that Lethem refers to when describing his own pattern of learning and knowing – it resonates strongly with me, suggesting both a sense of discovering ideas late, after their time has passed; but also of discovering ideas unexpectedly, of receiving them as gifts of chance.

Doing Public Things

DorsLast week I attended a workshop organised by CCIG’s publics research programme and the Creating Publics project (I was only able to attend one day of the three because of an outbreak of chicken-pox at home). The workshop was in part a moment in a collaborative project on Making Publics across time and space between some OU social science researchers and a humanities-based network based at McGill that has been behind the Making Publics project (MAP for short). There is a great set of CBC radio programmes that grew out of that project, covering a wide historical sweep of issues related to public formation.

The discussions at the workshop clarified for me the importance of thinking about the  grammar of conceptualizations of publicness. I have tried to write a little about this, in a paper submitted last month and a chapter that I have just got back for proof-reading, so it was on my mind already.

Everyone seems to agree that one should adopt a plural register when approaching public questions – that it is right and proper to talk about publics rather than the public. But I wonder whether it makes much difference if one pluralises the public, rather say than pluralising the public sphere or public space. Speaking of publics in the plural might not make much difference in so far as attention remains focussed on overly substantialised images of publics as more or less sociolgical group-like entities.

The default to thinking in terms of plural publics, thought of as a straightforward synonym for the conceptual issues raised by ideas such as the public sphere or public space, is associated with successive moves which emphasise the ‘constructed’ qualities of publics: publics are made, assembled, performed, or enacted, depending on one’s particular theoretical inclinations. All of these ideas tend to leave in place the strong impression that there is some sort of animating subject doing the making or assembling, and/or that the product of the assembling or enacting is also best thought of as some sort of collective subject. Something has been lost along the way: the sense of publicness as a subjectless process, to paraphrase old uncle Habermas. After all, ‘the public sphere’ might be a quite clunky translation of a concept that was not meant only to name an institutional form, but also, perhaps more importantly, to name a certain sort of action – acting publicly and acting in public understood as a distinctive  mode or medium of social organisation (see here and here for a neat summary of the continuing subtlety,  shall we say, of Habermas’ account of ‘the public sphere’ and the vicissitudes of its transition, indicating some of the reasons why fixating on publics might not be the advance it is sometimes assumed to be).

This is where the grammar of theories of publicness becomes important:

– If one talks in terms of making, enacting, or assembling publics, then the modalities of action are already presupposed (and the most important thing always seems to be the constructed qualities of publics, with slightly different inflections, as if publics were ever thought of as naturally occurring kinds). This type of formulation makes publicness the subject of a process that is not, strictly speaking, specifically public per se – I think perhaps only performativity has a genealogy that brings it up close to the distinctive problems of public action, in a way that assemblage, or enactment, for example do not quite share – these latter might be too comfortable in their assumptions about the sociality of collective action as distinct from its publicity.

– If, on the other hand, one talks of making things public – making science public, for example – then the emphasis is more squarely on publicness as a type of action. And this is where the fun starts – this action might be about sharing, or exposing, or making transparent or accountable or equally accessible….

My point, I suppose, is that one can either apply certain concepts of action derived from more or less proximate fields to understand the formation of publics; or, one can think a little more about the distinctively public qualities of certain types of action. I think the latter task is probably more difficult. The ‘politics’ of asserting that publics are performed, or enacted, or assembled tends to be relatively predictable and two-dimensional (since publics are made in contingent circumstances, they can be re-made, that sort of thing). The stake in theorising about distinctively public types of action is, I think, less satisfying: it requires thinking about power relations in more than two dimensions, in terms of the reconfiguration of plural public values – of openness, transparency, sharing, accessibility  and so on – rather than in terms of dualisms between public and private, universal and particular, natural or contingent, however ‘paradoxical’ those dualisms can be made to appear.

So my mid-year resolution is to try not to talk about publics at all, while trying to be more precise in usage when talking about public spheres, public spaces, and the types of action associated with processes and mediums of publicness.

Neuroscience, politics, and judgment

MCThe latest issue of Perspectives on Politics has an extensive ‘debate’ section on the relevance of neurobiology to political analysis, centred on a piece from John Hebbing. Respondents include some usual suspects – George Marcus, and William Connolly, for example. My favourite response is from Linda Zerilli, and not only because she quotes me! Zerilli is the author of one of my favourite ever pieces of ‘Theory’, a wonderful ‘Cavellian’ reading of the limits of post-structuralist feminist deconstructions of foundations (it’s re-printed in her book Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom). In her contribution to this debate about neuroscience, she pinpoints the degree to which debates about the relevance of neuro-stuff and affect-stuff revolve around troubled ideas about practices of judgment, a theme of her work more broadly (see here). Zerilli’s argument about neuroscience and affect theory is part of a broader current project developing a democratic theory of judgment.