2014 Top Ten: Music

wyverncpI’m not sure what this list says about how well I seem to belong to a predictable going-backwards-Dad demographic. This is what has formed the backbone of the soundtrack to my life this year:

1). Jenny Lewis’s Voyager. I seem to discover new things to listen these days mainly by listening to David Byrne’s monthly playlist, which is where I first discovered this – I need to find better ways of keeping up.

2). Talking Heads, Real Live Wires. This is one of a number of live radio recordings from the late ’70s that are now available on CD; coming across this was a little bit like discovering previously unpublished lectures by Foucault.

3). Spoon, They Want My Soul. Lovely.

4). Bobby Darin’s Commitment.

5). Sibylle Baier’s Colour Green,  thanks to Robert Forster’s book.

6). Kristen Hersh, Murder, Misery, and Then Goodnight, because both of my daughters like it.

7). James Brown, Gold. I spent a week in Cape Town with this as the only thing to listen to in the car, so now I feel a lot more funky than I did before.

8). Court Yard Hounds, Amelita.

9). Taylor Swift, 1989. We have 2 tickets to see her in Hyde Park next summer, and I still haven’t given up hope of being the grown-up who gets to go.

10). Frozen, The Soundtrack. Obviously.

2014 Top Ten: Fun Books

IMG_2978Sometimes, in addition to the books I read for work, I also read things for less instrumental reasons, almost for pleasure, although the boundary is a bit fuzzy (in both directions). This is a list not so much of ‘best books’ of the year, more a list of the books associated with my favourite book-buying/book-reading experiences of the year.

1). Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacationbecause this is the kind of holiday I would like to take.

2). Let’s Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson, which is the best, and probably only, book about Celine Dion I am ever going to read.

3). Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavicmy favourite writer-whose-books-you-can-only-seem-to-buy-in-South-Africa.

4). The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005-09, by Robert Forster. I bought this for a couple of quid in Bristol, not knowing that he wrote music criticism, and discovered some new things to listen to as a result; I almost cried when reading his appreciation of co-Go Between, Grant McLennan.

5). James Salter’s Last Nightshort stories, no sentence of which can be read quickly, really good for reading in the bath.

6). Michael Tomasky’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, my first e-book, I read this in one sitting on a flight to New York city. There were not screaming crowds awaiting my arrival.

7). Gideon Haigh’s Ashes to Ashes. I have come to dislike most things about cricket, leaving one or two pleasures at the edges, like Mike Selvey in The Guardian, and Vic Marks on the radio, and Gideon Haigh; this is really only a collection of his daily newspaper columns of the 10 Ashes Tests of 2013-2014.

8). The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, by Robert Caro. This is a cheat, since I haven’t actually read all three of these this year, but I have been dipping in and out of each one, having read the fourth volume a couple of Christmas’s ago, and then seeing Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way in March. The Bluecoat second-hand bookshop in Liverpool has had these three volumes sitting around for years, so I finally succumbed and got the lot for £20, a bargain).

9). The Portlandia Cook Book. I’ll give this a try, but nothing with pickles.

10). Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre. I read this in two sittings, to and from Disneyland Paris on Eurostar, which seems appropriate in all sorts of ways.

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

2014 Top Ten: Theory Books

shoes’tis the season to make best-of-the-year lists, it seems. I read books for a living (which means not necessarily from start to finish, and generally by writing in them as I go along). These are my favourites from this year, ones which made me think the most, or confirmed my prejudices, or surprised me a little bit, and all of which also bought at least a little bit of pleasure.

1). Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice – Michel Foucault (like discovering a lost record by Talking Heads from somewhere between 1978 and 1982).

2). Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon – edited by Barbara Cassin.

3). Sophistical Practice: Toward a Consistent Relativism – Barbara Cassin.

4). Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problem of Modernity – Colin Koopman.

5). Keys to the City: How Economics, Institutions, Social Interaction, and Politics Shape Development – Michael Storper.

6). Democracy and Illusion: An Examination of Certain Aspects of Modern Democratic Theory – John Plamenatz (and oldie, bought by accident).

7). Making Human Geography – Kevin Cox (my favourite book by someone I know).

8). Africa’s Urban Revolution – edited by Sue Parnell and Edgar Pieterse (makes you think about cities and urbanization in new ways).

9). Justification and Critique: Towards a Critical Theory of Politics – Rainer Forst.

10). Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity – Charles Taylor (another oldie, and I’m not sure why I found myself reading this, but I did, and then I wondered why I hadn’t done so before).

Bite Size Theory: Lineages of Political Society

“Most scholars find everyday politics excruciatingly boring. This may be the result of our habit of following politics through the news headlines where only the extraordinary, the spectacular, and the sensational find a place. Further, those who set store by the political subject engaging in the heroic politics of the street can never fail to find it if they regularly follow the headlines.”

Partha Chatterjee, 2011, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy. Columbia University Press.

Bite Size Theory: Thinking in an Emergency

“Insofar as I am making an argument about finding and following good habits, I am also making an argument about finding and following, binding ourselves to, good constitutional procedures. Conversely, I am suggesting that our contempt for our laws, the suspension of constitutional requirements overseeing our entry into war, is in part based on our contempt for the habitual that is undeserved.

Elaine Scarry, 2011, Thinking in an Emergency, W.W. Norton.

Bite Size Theory: Democracy Past and Future

“The differentiation of the political today, then, follows from the fact that more and more modes of representation, types of supervision, procedures of monitoring, and manners of expression of preferences are becoming available and distinguishing themselves from one another. Paradoxically, democracy thus seems to be diluted precisely because the possibilities of relating to institutions and one another are multiplying.”

Pierre Rosanvallon, 2006. Democracy Past and Future, New York, Columbia University Press.

Bad Foucault

IMG_0545I just came across an interview with Daniel Zamora, via a flurry of Twitter excitement, trailing his new book, apparently due to be translated into English next year, which ‘dares’ to develop a critique of Foucault. It’s available at Jacobin, and also at nonsite. The focus is on how Foucault displayed an unseemly interest and sympathy for ‘neoliberal’ ideas in the 1970s. I’m not sure this is a terribly new observation. I say so since I have managed to write a couple of blogs on this, a few years or so ago now, reflecting on how the concept of governmentality is always thought of as a name for the suspect exercise of sinister power, and also on how some thinkers, at least, have been developing rather more precise usages of the term neoliberal in light of Foucault’s thoughts on this theme. I say this not in a “I’m great” sort of way, but rather in a “If I knew all about this, it can’t be that shocking a discovery” sort of way. There is already plenty of discussion of this theme in Foucault’s work, by Colin Gordon, by Michael Behrent, amongst others.

Zamora’s line seems to be that Foucault’s ‘indulgence’ of ideas such as Friedman’s negative income tax’  reflects badly on him, politically. The rhetorical force of this argument rests on a fairly standard trick of drawing homologies between various leftish arguments against statism, or for a bit more freedom, and ‘neoliberal’ free-marketery. I’ve always found that sort of argument lazy, even when advanced by thinkers I otherwise like a lot, such as Nancy Fraser. Above all, it tends to leave in place fairly standard ideas of what ‘neoliberalism’ is and what ‘neoliberalization’ has been. It seems to me that the affinity that Foucault appears to have displayed might be just as well taken as an occasion to rethink both of those ideas. That’s the spirit, for example, of James Ferguson’s discussions of left governmentality. Zamora’s arguments also depend on identifying some new homologies I have not come across before – such as the idea that a defining feature of neoliberal policies is a concern to alleviate poverty (since that leaves deeper issues of inequality in place, you see). I have no great concern to defend Foucault’s honour, but it seems to me a bit limited to suggest that a commitment to providing a minimum level of income is somehow a mark of right-wing neoliberalism. That would be a bit of a surprise, I suspect, to lots of people all the way from Thomas Paine through to Erik Olin Wright and many others.

I suspect that there is plenty of scope for reconfiguring the ‘political’ interpretation of Foucault’s work buried in all those recently published lectures, but it doesn’t seem very creative to do so by simply re-inscribing it into a static terrain in which the constant negative pole is an object of repulsion always called ‘neoliberalism’.

Bite Size Theory: Wittgenstein and Justice

“Perhaps what characterizes political life is precisely the problem of continually creating unity, a public, in a context of diversity, rival claims, unequal power, and conflicting interests. In the absence of rival claims, and conflicting interests, a topic never enters the political realm; no political decision needs to be made. But for the political collectivity, the “we”, to act, those conflicting claims and interests must be resolved in a way that continues to preserve the collectivity.”

Hannah Pitkin, 1972. Wittgenstein and Justice: On the Significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Social and Political Thought, University of California Press.

On Stoddart

CCCCI was saddened to hear of the death of the geographer David Stoddart. The Guardian has an obituary, written by Peter Haggett, and The Independent has one by Tam Dalyell, with whom Stoddart campaigned to save Aldabra from being used as a military base; and there is an appreciation on the Berkeley Geography Department website.

Stoddart is the main influence on me becoming a Geographer, or at least on remaining in Geography long enough to become one. I am the last-but-one Geography undergraduate he admitted before leaving Cambridge, and no-one had applied to his College for a couple of years before me. Later on, it occurred to me that this might have been why I got in – I assume he wasn’t going to look too hard at the stray application that did turn up (I only applied to that College because they offered the best accommodation deal). As my Director of Studies, I was taught by Stoddart for a year, in his office in the Department of Geography (he had effectively ceased to actually visit the College some time ago). He wasn’t actually around when my first term started, he arrived a couple of weeks later, having been away in California, securing the Chair to which he moved at the end of 1987.

For a year, I had one-on-one supervisions with Stoddart, because there weren’t any other Geographers for whom he was responsible (This wasn’t, in my experience otherwise, a normal situation at all; supervisions normally had two or three people in them). In these meetings, I learnt various things. I learnt how to nurse a large glass beaker full of sherry through an hour-long meeting in which someone else was ding a lot of the talking without ending up totally trashed (not a skill that has been called on much since then). Above all, I learnt that Geography was an intellectual vocation. Stoddart’s outward demeanour was, as I recall, rather hearty, but his teaching was focussed on ideas, ideas, and ideas. His supervisions were interrupted by phone calls from Joseph Needham, and full of discussions, by Stoddart, of Darwin. His model of teaching was to send you off to read something for next time, and then when next time came round, you would find yourself talking about something else entirely. As a matter of principle, he didn’t set essays; so I didn’t write any in my first year as an undergraduate, until exams in the summer. This was a model of Geography as reading, like a personalised version of Geography as ‘Greats’ (I tended not to invest so heavily in Stoddart’s predilection for romping around salt marshes in the cold of November).

UntitledStoddart had me read Paul Wheatley’s Pivot of the Four Quarters in my first term, and Clarence Glacken’s Traces of the Rhodian Shore over the Christmas break (let’s not dwell on whether I understood anything going on in these kinds of books). Perhaps most importantly, he pointed me in the direction of David Harvey’s work. Getting me to read Harvey was his strategy to keep me from switching from Geography at the end of my first year. I went to University with the intention of studying Economics, and only started with Geography because if you already had an A-Level in Economics, you did not need to do the first-year Economics course. I thought doing Geography would be a good way of learning a few more facts about desertification and drought before focussing on proper, complex ideas about how the world really worked (which is what doing Economics at school had seemed to have been about). When I first met him, at a meet-and-greet event in the Spring before going to University, I had told Stoddart that I liked Keynes (he had asked me who my intellectual hero was, and I didn’t think it wise to say ‘Charles M. Schulz’), and that I had an interest in knowing more about Marxism (probably because of reading too much of the NME). So when I started, when he did arrive back, he told me to read Harvey, specifically, ‘Population, Resources, and the Ideology of Science‘. This essay was almost designed to convert callow just-out-of-school Geographers into critical social scientists. It worked on me. When I later ordered Harvey’s Limits to Capital for the College library, the request was forwarded to the Economics fellow for approval, who declined it on the grounds that this book was already held at the University’s Economics library. Stoddart was furious at this, and insisted on it being ordered as core Geography reading.

By the end of my first year, actually much earlier, I had settled on staying with Geography (helped by the realisation that Economics was really just abstracted applied algebra). This was because I had discovered a whole world of social theory, a world full of Marxism and feminism and Giddens, a world in which it turned out that everyone was talking about politics and power. And I had discovered this world in no small part because Stoddart encouraged me in that direction, and also because he demonstrated to me through his own work and teaching style that Geography was the place to stay if you were really interested in pursuing ideas.