Author-Meets-More-or-Less-Friendlies: The Priority of Injustice at AAG 2018

I’m delighted to announce that the very wonderful Michael Samers has arranged an Author Meets Critics session on The Priority of Injustice, my new book (did I mention that?) at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in New Orleans in April. It’s a great panel, with Joshua Barkan (U. of Georgia), Jennifer Fluri (U. of Colorado, Boulder), Leila Harris (UBC), and Kirsi Kallio (University of Tampere) all commenting on the book. The session is sponsored by AAG’s Political Geography Specialty Group and Ethics, Justice, and Human Rights Specialty Group. There’s a nice symmetry about the prospect of discussing the book in New Orleans – the last time the conference was there, in 2003, I presented a paper on theories of radical democracy that was my first post-Culture and Democracy effort at articulating the limits of broadly post-structuralist approaches to that topic, an effort that led eventually to the shape of The Priority of Injustice (yes, I’m a slow thinker).

Here’s the pitch for the session, a somewhat revised version of the cover blurb for the book itself:

“In The Priority of Injustice, Clive Barnett challenges conventional ways of thinking about the spaces of democratic politics. In geography and related disciplines, debates about democracy have become trapped around a set of oppositions between deliberative and agonistic theories, in which the promotion of participatory experiments runs alongside widespread protestations about the post-political tendencies of contemporary events. Interrupting the broadly shared romanticization of spaces of assembly, public protest, and the street in these debates, Barnett unpacks the philosophical assumptions about space and time that underlie competing understandings of the sources of political conflict. Rather than developing ideal theories of democracy or ontological accounts of proper politics, he proposes an ordinary style of analysis that focuses on how experiences of injustice and demands for recognition, redress, and repair are articulated and processed across various spaces.

This Author-Meets-Critics panel brings Barnett into conversation with interlocutors with expertise in areas including environmental politics, feminist geographies, legal geography and political geography. Panellists will include Joshua Barkan, Jennifer Fluri, Leila Harris, and Kirsi Pauliina Kallio. Clive Barnett will respond to the critics and take questions from the audience.”

The Priority of Injustice

So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published.  It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.

This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.

It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.

I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.

The book doesn’t even have any empirical case studies in it, upon which to hang a more popular pitch. It doesn’t really have much more than passing references to some real-world examples. In this respect, I might have broken one of the cardinal rules of writing in GeographyLand. But the book is about the different forms of theoreticism that one finds in contemporary political thought, where that refers to the ways in which  appeal to preconstructed examples is used to confirm ready-made philosophical perspectives. So, as a matter of principle, I couldn’t very well reproduce that same gesture myself.

I realise that this might sound defensive, although in this respect I’m in good company. Kant, in the Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, starts by apologising for not having any examples or illustrations, which he knows would have helped the reader along (if you live and work among geographers, his discussion is actually very funny – it indicates that Kant really was a proper geographer, haunted by the same anxieties about ‘real world examples’ that we have drummed into us all the time!). I am going to resist the temptation to lay claim to his defence that “many a book would have been clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear”. I am inclined instead to appeal to another grand Theory Master, Talcott Parsons (great name) – Parsons, in his 1968 Introduction to a new edition of The Structure of Social Action, also responds to the accusation that his work was all theory and no empirics – his book, he asserted, was “an empirical study in the analysis of social thought”, which treats the writings of various thinkers as “documents” that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. Had I read that before I finished my own book, I would have used it, but I didn’t, but I am certainly going to use it a lot from now on. It’s pretty much exactly how I conceive what I am doing in The Priority of Injustice. This is not, mind, merely a matter of exegesis – it’s more like something described by Yi-Fu Tuan, in another preface (I do read past the first few pages of some books), to his Dominance and Affection. He describes his book as an essay, a preliminary undertaking that imaginatively lays out ideas, as a first step towards the focus on specific problems and their analysis. I see my book as doing a bit of what both Parsons and Tuan recommend, with only touch of the apologetic anxiety expressed by Kant.

I should have a go, shouldn’t I, at saying out loud what this very long book is actually about, what it actually argues (it does have a fantastic index!). There is a promotional jacket blurb, which does a quite good job of doing that, but let me try to give a little more substance.

The first thing to say is that this an argumentative book – it’s an argument for a certain way of thinking and theorising, and against certain other ways. The ways of thinking that I argue against can be variously characterised, for sure, but I have come to think of them a constituting a fairly coherent discourse, shall we say, that defines being in the true of avowedly ‘poststructuralist’ critical thought. That name might not quite capture the field, exactly, but what I have in mind is an intellectual world defined by two core features: a recurrent fixation on the dynamics of subjectification; and a tendency towards what I have called ontological trumping, expressed most clearly in the convergence of critical spatial theory with assertive ontologies of the political. Take those two features, splice them together, and you have entered into the unreflexive common sense of what it means to perform critique in contemporary TheoryLand.

The Priority of Injustice is, primarily, a book about democratic theory, which isn’t just any old body of theory, but it’s also a book about the vocation of critical theory more broadly. It’s also in part a book in which I try to pay homage to the thinkers who have really influenced my own intellectual trajectory: thinkers including Stanley Cavell and Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, Linda Zerilli and Stuart Hall, Albert Hirschman and Partha Chatterjee, Nancy Fraser and Hannah Pitkin, Axel Honneth and Bernard Williams, Phillip Pettit and Cora Diamond. As well as old uncle Habermas, of course. Somewhere in that list there is, I think, the outlines of an account of the rapprochement between post-analytical political philosophy and critical theory of a big C and big T, post-Frankfurt School style (that might be the subject of the next book). It’s in the relationship between those two traditions that I situate my own vision of the tasks of doing critical analysis in a democratic spirit.

The book has three parts, and certainly in my head, these three parts hang together perfectly in a narrative sequence (but hey, you can dip and dip out too, I’m sure – nobody actually reads academic books from front to back, do they?).

In the first part (Democracy and Critique) – which I can’t help but think of as the equivalent of the ‘methods’ section – Chapter 1 (An Awareness of Politics) distinguishes between  different styles of radical democratic theory, arguing that it is not disputes about the meaning of democracy that are crucial so much as different understandings of the meaning of meaning. I argue that the rise to prominence of ontological trumping in political thought is associated with an attachment to the ‘etymological gesture’ in accounting for the meaning of key terms of democratic dispute (and I also suggest that Roland Barthes has much the most interesting thing to say about democracy as any twentieth-century French thinker). In the next chapter (Criteria for Democratic Inquiry), I try to articulate, for the first time in my own writing, why I love Stanley Cavell, outlining a view of how the meaning of democracy can be best approached as a problem by roving across discussions of exemplary thinking in Arendt and Derrida, ‘the ordinary’ and the projection of new meanings in Cavell and others, ‘essentially contested concepts’, and analogies of lake-formation, and the ideas of ‘the enactment of democracy’ and democracy as an ‘ethnographically emergent’ phenomenon. This is all as a preliminary to the discussion in Part 3 of the book (Phenomenologies of Injustice) about attending to the force of assertive claims against injustice.

Before getting to that bit, though, the book has a big middle section (Rationalities of the Political), consisting of three chapters in which I try to redeem something of value from what has become the deadeningly simple analysis of ‘the political’, the post-political, and (de-)politicization. In draft, this section was very long, 100,000 words or so, and it was largely negative in tone, but then I remembered the reason why I cut a very similar section from a previous book I wrote – because it seemed a waste of an opportunity to write so much about something that you didn’t actually feel was of much value. So I try to reconstruct the kernel of what is interesting about the tradition of predominantly Francophile discussions of the theme of ‘the political’ (a large part of the answer to what is most interesting about that theme is… the American strand of debates about the eclipse of ‘the political’). I argue (in The Ontological Need) that the splitting of politics into 2 parts (politics and the political, etc – a trick that is mind-blowing the first time you come across it, but quickly loses its allure) – needs to be saved from the prevalent ontological reading in which it has now been entombed. Discussions of the political, certainly in GeographyLand and related fields as well as in a great deal of political theory – qualify as metaphysical in the sense used by Cora Diamond: they impose requirements on what and how phenomenon should appear and how they should be apprehended in order for them to qualify as properly political. It is, really, a bizarre style of analysis, but one which is really good for reproducing certain sorts of spatialized romanticism. Along the way, I attempt to parse different vocabularies of antagonism in political thought (in The Scandal of Consent and The Significance of Conflict), suggesting that it a good idea NOT to ontologize conflict, struggle, and contestation.

I proffer instead a view of ‘the political’ theme that recovers the phenomenological inflection of this concept as it shows up in the often rather pessimistic viewpoints of Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin and Pierre Rosanvallon, with a backward nod to Merleau-Ponty’s Machiavellian account of political life. Finding the interesting aspect of discussions of ‘the political’ in the emphasis on the experiential (which is emphatically not the same as super-structuralist analyses of ‘distributions of the sensible’) allows me to seamlessly link the three chapters of this section of the book to the discussion in the final part of the book.

In the final three chapters, I follow a hint by Axel Honneth and seek to reconstruct a lineage of radical democratic thought that develops not by reference to ever more refined ontologies of disruption and becoming, but by reference to the analysis of the rationalities of action. The final part of the book, the assertive part, has three steps, chapter by chapter: first, (in Claims of the Affected) I reconstruct how the theme of all affected interests has been revived in the geographical turn of certain strands of political thought, and add my own inflection (with due acknowledgement to Robert Dahl), suggesting that this idea needs to be thought of as a heuristic device rather than a prescriptive rule. That argument is then connected (in Subjects of Domination) to a consideration of how theories of democratic justice have come to pivot on the value of non-domination (partly but not only with reference to Phillip Pettit), and how this in turn implies a particular understanding of the grammar of justice claims, best articulated by the wonderful work of Iris Marion Young, my guiding light in all things democratic. The final chapter (The Sense of Injustice) then works through the implications of the argument about affectedness, non-domination and claims-making more fully, catching sight of and bringing into the open a somewhat under appreciated strand of thought that interrupts debates about how best to theorise justice not by ‘going ontological’ but by reordering the conceptual relationships between the idea of justice and the experience of injustice. That strand of thought is quite thin, it’s very recent, but it includes some heavy hitters – Shklar, Sen, for example, and it meets critical theorists like Honneth coming from another direction, and I seek in this last chapter to express why giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life matters to the vocation of critique (the theme of the priority of injustice should not be confused with a more general preference, not least in GeographyLand, for practice over theory – I explain just why it shouldn’t in a new paper in Annals of AAG – and to be clear, that paper is a supplement to the book, it contains a discussion that isn’t in the book at all).

And then the book ends, with a claim – a reminder to me more than anything else – about that earlier point that the whole book is really an essay – a preliminary to further inquiry, a setting of a scene, if not of an agenda. If there is anyone out there who wants to give me loads of money to actually pursue the research programme laid out at the end of the book, do let me know.

 

 

Sharing Economies in Times of Crisis: Practices, Politics and Possibilities

I’m having a strange moment in which a whole series of things that I have written at some point, stretching back at least to 2015, but some much more recently, are suddenly published in the same week (yes, yes, I know, like buses, you wait ages for a paper to come out and then….). A really interesting new collection of essays on Sharing Economies in Times of Crisis, edited by Ant Ince and Sarah Marie Hall, arrived in my pigeon-hole today, to which I wrote a short Foreword (in which I riff on some ideas about the meaning of sharing and public life). Here is the blurb for the book (order it for your library):

“The ‘new sharing economy’ is a growing phenomenon across the Global North. It claims to transform relationships of production and consumption in a way that can improve our lives, reduce environmental impacts, and reduce the cost of living. Amidst various economic, environmental, and other crises, this message has strong resonance. Yet, it is not without controversy, and there have been heated debates over negative dimensions for workers and consumers alike. This book stretches far beyond the sharing economy as it is popularly defined, and explores the complex intersections of ‘sharing’ and ‘the economy’, and how a better understanding of these relationships might help us address the multiple crises that confront contemporary societies.”

And here is the full list of contents:

Chapter 1. Introduction: Sharing Economies in Times of Crisis

By Sarah Marie Hall and Anthony Ince

Part 1: Sharing In and Through Crisis

Chapter 2. ‘It feels connected in so many ways’: circulating seeds and sharing garden produce

By Laura Pottinger

Chapter 3. Malleable homes and mutual possessions: caring and sharing in extended family households as a resource for survival

By Chris Gibson, Natascha Klocker, Erin Borger and Sophie-May Kerr

Chapter 4. Reciprocity in Uncertain Times: Negotiating Giving and Receiving Across Time and Place Among Older New Zealanders

By Juliana Mansvelt

Chapter 5. Relationships, reciprocity and care: alcohol, sharing and ‘urban crisis’

By Mark Jayne, Gill Valentine and Sarah L. Holloway

Part 2: Sharing, the Economy and Sharing Economies

Chapter 6. Home for Hire: How the sharing economy commoditises our private sphere

By Paula Bialski

Chapter 7. ‘Hand-me-down’ Childrenswear and the Middle-class Economy of Nearly New Sales

By Emma Waight

Chapter 8. Franchising the disenfranchised? The paradoxical spaces of food banks

By Nicola Livingstone

Chapter 9. Shared Moments of Sociality: Embedded Sharing within Peer-to-Peer Hospitality Platforms

By Katharina Hellwig, Russell Belk and Felicitas Morhart

Part 3: Alternative Sharingscapes

Chapter 10. Swimming against the tide: collaborative housing and practices of sharing

By Lucy Sargisson

Chapter 11. Just Enough to Survive: Economic citizenship in the context of Indigenous land claims

By Nicole Gombay

Chapter 12. Crisis, capitalism, and the anarcho-geographies of community self-help

By Richard White and Colin Williams

Planning in the Global South: new publication

The Companion to Planning in the Global South, edited by Gautam Bhan, Smita Srinivas, and Vanessa Watson, is newly published by Routledge, and available for libraries to order (the cost is otherwise quite steep, although there is a lower cost edition for South Asia due to be published shortly). The collection is another contribution to ongoing debates about ‘southern urbanism’ and related topics, as the blurb makes clear:

“The Routledge Companion to Planning in the Global South offers an edited collection on planning in parts of the world which, more often than not, are unrecognised or unmarked in mainstream planning texts. In doing so, its intention is not to fill a ‘gap’ that leaves this ‘mainstream’ unquestioned but to re-theorise planning from a deep understanding of ‘place’ as well as a commitment to recognise the diverse modes of practice that come within it.

The chapters thus take the form not of generalised, ‘universal’ analyses and prescriptions, but instead are critical and located reflections in thinking about how to plan, act and intervene in highly complex city, regional and national contexts. Chapter authors in this Companion are not all planners, or are planners of very different kinds, and this diversity ensures a rich variety of insights, primarily based on cases, to emphasise the complexity of the world in which planning is expected to happen.”

Sue Parnell and I have a chapter in the collection, reflecting on the significance of SDG 11 (the ‘urban SDG’) and the so-called ‘new urban agenda’, extending the argument of our earlier piece on these issues. You can get the Introduction to the whole collection here.