Affect theory and its disaffections

It turns out that the single most visited post on this blog is, still, from 2011, discussing Ruth Leys’ rather wonderful take-down of affect theory in Critical Inquiry (apart from anything else, this is an important lesson about always giving the things you write a decent title – a lesson I learnt a long time ago). Leys’ CI critique of theories of affect in the humanities and social sciences is one part of her broader genealogy of the human sciences. Her new book, The Ascent of Affect, is, she says, the third in a trilogy alongside Trauma and From Guilt to Shame. The new book is a sustained critical engagement with debates within and over the sciences of emotion that provide the more or less acknowledged background of social theories of affect and non-representationalism (in so far as there is any claim at all in these theories that the grand metaphysical generalisations one can derive from reading Deleuze and others aren’t just made up – to a considerable extent, these theoretical fields inadvertently offer themselves up as exemplars of the ‘autonomy of affect’, to the degree that ontological claims are simply asserted as beyond dispute and thereby effectively immunised from any critical scrutiny). The emphasis in Leys’ account is on disputes and disagreements within this scientific field – the dimension which makes any authoritative appropriation of such fields to settle arguments within the social sciences and humanities so problematic.

The Ascent of Affect came at the end of a year that I had begun by reading Linda Zerilli’s equally wonderful A Democratic Theory of Judgment, a work of political theorising not of genealogy, but one which also engages critically with the turn to affect in recent cultural and especially political theory. In her book, Zerilli takes my characterisation of the layer cake ontology of non-representational theory as pretty much capturing the essence of affect theory more generally, which is very flattering. The combination of an architectural vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority (all those feelings and inclinations kicking in before anyone is even conscious of it…) is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader cultural world of psychologised neuro-commentary (Jessica Pykett has recently elaborated on some of the implicit spatial assumptions one finds in popularised versions of neuroscience). It’s a feature that discloses what I would be inclined to call, ripping the phrase off from Gilbert Ryle, the logical geography of action that distinguishes this field – this theme is just now beginning to come clear for me as the focus of next book, now that the flurry of excitement associated with publication of the last one has died down.

Zerilli presents Ruth Leys and myself as providing two distinctive critical perspectives – as ‘affect theory critics’ – which again is flattering (I only ever wrote one paper and a couple of blogposts, whereas you can find the emerging outlines of Leys’ more recent sustained critique not only in her Critical Inquiry piece but also in those earlier books as well). Both Zerilli and Leys present me as accusing affect theorists of ‘cryptnoromativism’ – of not being able to able to defend their normative preferences with reasons because, as Zerilli puts it, for them reasons “always trail after affect-driven preferences”. Leys, on the other hand, sees the problem as an inability or unwillingness on behalf of advocates of the autonomy of affect to take any normative position at all – as she puts it in her new book, for affect theorists “preferring democracy to despotism is life preferring tea to coffee”. The stronger point she is making is that affect theory closes down any sense of disagreement as a dimension of life – it’s a theme developed much more explicitly in Todd Cronan’s critical account of the affective turn in aesthetics in Against Affective Formalism– where the recurring argument is that appeals to the causal power of affect have the effect of closing down any space not just of intentionality but also therefore of interpretation, and that herein lies the political unconscious of those appeals, registered in the erasure of any scope for legitimate disagreement or dispute. Leys uses my argument to specify her own point, suggesting that there is no a contradiction at all between avowing progressive causes and affirming the power of affective priming but a considerable degree of consistency precisely because the former are indeed taken to be mere personal preferences (strictly speaking, I don’t think I did rely on a sense of performative contradiction in my discussion of non-representational ontologies, which is not after all the same thing as cryptonormativism – I happen to think, more generally, that the real problem across these debates is the authoritative appeal to ‘ontology’ (or, ‘the made-up’, let’s call it) in a way that forecloses on the significance of normativity to life, which I think is a rather similar worry to Leys’ worry about the elision of intentionality).

The issue that Leys’ genealogy of disputes over the science of emotions – and especially over the validity of the affect program theory of basic emotions proposed by Sylvan Tomkins, the thinker championed by Eve Kofosky Segwick in the pivotal text in the turn to affect in the humanities – clarified for me is a key contrast, one that cascades through social theory and humanities debates about affect, between two quite distinct images of the social. Noncognitivst and anti-intentional interpretations of the emotions tend to hold to images of isolated monads, housing a brain, buffeted by external stimuli. The social here stands as an external, totalising environment (call it an ‘atmosophere’, perhaps?). It’s a very traditional image. Leys reconstructs  a counter-tradition that holds to a view of mindedness as contextual and ecological, and thereby has lots more to say about issues of intentionality. The difference might be captured by the shift in the meaning of ideas about unconscious mental activity which Leys mentions in  her book. The unconscious, in psychoanalysis, is a “dynamic-conflictual” concept, and it only makes any sense against a background assumption that subjectivity is intentional, just not wholly so. This idea is contrasted to a view of unconscious activities “as forms of automatic, nonconscious information processing occurring in computer-style subsystems capable of acting independently of the mind’s conscious control”. It is this second sense of ‘unconscious’, with or without the scientific references, that is the operative usage in arguments in GeographyLand and related fields which champion and/or bemoan the extent to which apparently wilful action is in fact influenced, primed and manipulated in all sorts of ways that are beyond the mind’s control.

The noncognitivist strand of scientific research on emotion, with an emphasis on the on the stark separation and hierarchical ordering of systems of knowing and feeling, clear divisions between insides and outsides, the emphasis on information processing and stimulus response, and its attachment to identifying sub-personal mechanisms, informs an imagination of the social reduced to monadic pre-individuals immersed in totalising atmospheres and subjected to triggers and impulses that wholly shape them. With or without the direct reference, the analogy between this reductive, if not necessarily eliminationist, scientific imagination of the social and the imagination found in humanities and social science fields absorbed by affect theory is, well, uncanny. (There is, I think an interesting line of questioning left unexplored by Leys about the degree to which the divisions within the sciences of emotions might be related to a discernible difference amongst advocates of the importance of affect between strongly anti-intentional advocates of the autonomy of affects, which tend to invest heavily in science as the source of insights into the ontology of affect, and versions of affect theory that redistribute the relations between knowing and feeling, reflecting and doing in more creative ways – the concern, for example, with issues of attachment in Lauren Berlant’s version of affect theory suggests a refashioned understanding of the aboutness of affective dynamics, rather than a wholesale rejection of intentionality).

Zerilli’s discussion of affect theory in political thought is actually rather wary of what she quite rightly identifies as the central emphasis of Leys’ critique – the problem of intentionality (recognition of this issue does not even arise in geographical discussions of these matters, beyond simplistic dismissals of ideas of intentionality and rationality as all a bit old-hat – a sign of the philosophical unseriousness of those discussions, one might suppose). I am tempted to locate Leys’ genealogy of research on emotions as part of a wider “nonsite school” of cultural criticism, since her work clearly shares a number of commitments with the broader project associated with that journal of which she is one of the founding editors – whose mission statement asserts a shared interest in “a set of theoretical topics – the ontology of the work of art, the question of intentionality, the ongoing appeal of different and sometimes competing materialisms – and in part out of opposition to the dominant accounts of those topics.” It should be said that the emphasis in much of the work associated with, in Cronan’s book already mentioned for example or in the work of Walter Benn Michaels, is primarily upon redeeming a certain sort of concept of artistic intentionality. I am personally not convinced that artistic practice provides the best paradigm for thinking about intentionality, and one of the important features of Leys’ book is that she locates issues of cognitivism, noncognitivism, and intentionality more squarely in a philosophical debates, centring in no small part on issues rehearsed in the ‘McDowell/Dreyfus debate’ a while ago now. This is rather more interesting, and more ordinary, ground upon which to locate discussions about the relations between embodiment and mindedness, the human and the nonhuman, rationality and intentionality.

Leys’ book raises important questions about the ways in which interdisciplinary work depends on the selective invocation of examples and on claims to speak authoritatively in one field on the basis of privileged grasp of settled knowledge in other fields. One of the central concerns of the ‘school’, if there is such a thing, is a focus on the implications for understandings of intentionality and interpretation of the automatism built into various artistic mediums – painting, photography, film, and so on. In one of those odd coincidences that make reading more than one thing at the same time fun, I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as I came across the cricket writer Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second, a book all about the photography of Patrick Eagar, and specifically the photos he took in the summer of 1975 (amongst other things, it’s a book that thematises the way in which photography might constitute the conditions for nostalgia – a subtext of Ryan’s story is that much of the cricket in that summer was actually a bit crap, and he presents 1975 as a cricketing year that mattered primarily because of Eagar’s photography, in all sorts of ways – a summer when “the photography of the ballet mattered more than the ballet”). Ryan’s book is all about the relationship between chance, luck, accidents and the skills and habits of the photographer, mediated by the automatisms of cameras and remote controls. Ryan’s book should be read alongside Gideon Haigh‘s Stroke of Genius, a book about Victor Trumper, but more precisely about the making and after-life of the single most famous cricket photo of them all – both tell stories about what we can learn about habitual, embodied skilled action (of the photographer as well as cricketers) from attending the process of its representation (OK, so that’s how I read them, not least ‘coz I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as reading Ryan’s, which reminded me of this dimension of Haigh’s book which was my Christmas book last year – and not least because Ley’s narrative of disagreements over the science of emotions revolves in part around a critique of the rather peculiar way in which photographs of facial expressions secure the authority of Paul Ekman’s influential research on basic emotions). And remembering the centrality of baseball to the McDowell/Dreyfus debate, it struck me that this particular coincidence is slightly less than wholly contingent on my own odd interests – one could do a lot worse than these two recent cricket books if one wants to be provoked to think more about the relationships between embodied skills, rule following, automatism, expertise, luck and the felt sense of what is doable and sayable that are at the centre of the scientific and philosophical debates that Leys dissects – there is, after all, no reason to take cricket any less seriously than the disputed fields of science that remain so attractive to certain strands of cultural and political theory. And these two books aren’t really about cricket anyway (books which are tend to be really boring) – they are about mediation, which might just be the concept that holds the key to moving beyond the dead-ends down which non-representational anti-intentionalism has led critical thought.


Best Films 2017

The Best New Film I saw this year was Get Out, which was so scary I had to go back and see it again a couple of days later. This was pretty much the only grown-up movie I saw at the cinema this year, apart from Dunkirk, which was what it was, proper cinema for sure. There are lots of films I didn’t see but wanted too…. I did see The Breakfast Club on the big screen for the first time ever, which was odd, because it’s the first time I ever watched this movie (I have watched it a lot) without pausing and/or rewinding, and and both La La Land and The Last Jedi, but those last two in the company of a 10-year old, so not sure they count as grown-up.

The Best thing I watched on Netflix was Shimmer Lake, not least because I didn’t even realise it was going to be backwards (oops, gave it away, but not really). I started Wormwood, but haven’t finished that yet. West of Memphis is a bit old now, but was still great, and sad, and now I understand Lucinda Williams’ song a bit better (and there’s an interesting side-story going on about celebrity activism). Stranger Things was fun. I also caught up on some Hollywood oldies, including Johnny Guitar (I have a bit of a thing for Sterling Hayden), Sorry Wrong Number (Barbara Stanwyck doing 120% frantic), Double Indemnity (actually, you can catch up on pretty much the whole of Stanwyck’s Noir career on Netflix), and It Happened One Night (which I didn’t quite realise was what it was until I realised what it was).

The Best Old Film I watched was Laura, which is now just my favourite film ever. I was genuinely knocked sideways by the ‘twist’ in the middle – it took me about 10 minutes to settle back down and realise what was really going on (I can’t tell if you if you don’t know, because you need to not know before watching it). I watched lots of old films this year, the sort of old films that one is led to by the odd conjuncture of binge-listening to Karina Longworth in the car on the way to work and having read too much of the ‘lighter’ Stanley Cavell on Hollywood comedies and melodramas. The Best newish-old film I watched again was a tie between Desperately Seeking Susan and Something Wild (“Yeah. I’m a rebel. I am! I just channelled my rebellion into the mainstream” – since first watching this movie as an undergraduate in 1987, I have tried my very hardest to live my own life by that principle).

The Best Kids Film was Captain Underpants. This is now up there with Frozen and Box Trolls in my all time Best-movies-I-saw-with-my-children-which-I-wouldn’t-have-watched-otherwise Top 3.

Last, but not least, the Best Documentary Series I watched this year (a bit late again) was definitely Little Lunch. I learnt so much from watching this, again, and again, and again.


On The Priority of Injustice IV: Prolegomena to Democratic Inquiry

Last time I was reflecting on the central themes in The Priority of Injustice, I was discussing the contrast between action-oriented social theories and subject-centric interpretations of cultural and political theory and ‘Continental philosophy’. The final part of the book seeks to demonstrate the difference that cleaving more closely to the former strand of thought makes to a geographical programme of political inquiry. The subject-centric view of political life underwrites a form of spatial analysis focussed on closures and exclusions and the positioning of subjects in fields of meaning and affective force. The alternative perspective that I develop in Part 3 of the book revolves around the reconstruction of the principle of all affected interests in recent critical theories of democracy. And, related to this, it also involves a reorientation of a concern with democratic justice around the value of non-domination as distinct from fairness (i.e. it’s not straightforwardly liberal, although it does presume that one should take liberalism more seriously than has become the norm in radical theories of democracy).

In Part 3, this argument unfolds rather slowly, step-by-step, Chapter-by-Chapter, first with a discussion of the all affected interests idea (Chapter 6), then running this theme into a discussion of the centrality of the harm of domination in critical theory (Chapter 7), and then elaborating on how this in turn leads to a shared focus on ‘the priority of injustice’ across strands of critical theory and post-analytical political philosophy (Chapter 8).

The principle of all-affected interests – that anyone affected by a decision should have some say in its formulation – is a fairly intuitive aspect of the idea of democracy. Initially, it combines two aspects – one of being affected, but also of being able to exert agency, of being able to affect outcomes in some way. It is often discussed as a prescriptive norm of one sort or another; more interestingly, in the work of Ian Shapiro for example, it is used to develop an account of democratic inclusion that privileges relations of power over those of membership (Nancy Fraser also has a moment in which she uses it in this sense, although it is subsequently revised). The only problem with that view is that it lends itself to a view of affectedness as something that can be objectively determined by some form of causal analysis (which is why it might be very attractive to geographers, and is also why Fraser ends up moving away from it, on the grounds that it is an idea that supports ‘monological’ forms of reasoning). I suggest in Chapter 6, Claims of the Affected, that one can actually divide the first sense – of being affected – into two, a sense of having an interest in an issue in a kind of objective way, and a sense of taking an interest in an issue, in a sort of subjective way. It’s a distinction that is sometimes made in a prescriptive way (in Shapiro, I think, and also in Robert Goodin’s work on this theme), but sometimes embraced as opening up the idea of affectedness in more fun directions (by Bruno Latour, for example, but Robert Dahl got there first). So, I end up with a threefold heuristic distinguishing between being affected, being moved, and having agency – and then, I suggest that one can use this threefold account of affectedness to better appreciate the importance of Habermas’s translation of the principle of all affectedness into the terms of a theory of communicative action, and how various critics of Habermas further extend this translation in more explicitly contestatory and less rationalistically rationalist visions of democratic politics.

Oh, and all of this is framed by an argument against the presumptive “methodological globalism” of critical theories of democracy (i.e. their suspicion of local, emplaced, bounded, nationalised forms of political life). I close this chapter by suggesting that the threefold version of affectedness maps roughly onto three questions one can ask about the spatial registers of political action – questions about how spatial relations generate issues, serve as mediums for their apprehension as issues, and as potential vectors for effective agency, or not as the case may be (that’s an argument that I have made elsewhere at greater length than I do in this book – here and here, for example).

With what I am sure is a seamless segue, the argument then moves onto Chapter 7, Subjects of Domination, which works back over the theme of all affectedness to tease out the centrality of the harm of domination to recent critical theories of democracy – the discussion centres in particular on Iris Marion Young, my favourite thinker ever, as well as Nancy Fraser, and with a nod to Philip Pettit (not quite perhaps of this same tradition, but an important reference point for it). One thing to underscore about the concern with centring discussions of democratic justice on the issue of domination – of the arbitrary subjection to the will of others – is that it marks a decisive difference separating critical theories of democracy from liberal theories of democracy. Now, I’m quite fond of liberalism, of certain sorts, but of course in TheoryLand it’s a knock-down target – too individualistic, too rationalistic, too universalizing, not radical enough, and so on and so on. In terms of the discussion in this chapter of my book, since it is moving towards an elaboration of the theme of injustice, the pertinent point about egalitarian liberal theories of justice is that they prioritize the value of fairness, in terms of what one is due, of just deserts, fair shares. That’s not a principle to be lightly dismissed, of course. But from the critical theory perspective, the emphasis is not on fairness but upon matters of arbitrary rule – of how one is treated (the distinction is important, for example, for appreciating why Habermas isn’t properly characterised when labelled as a liberal; not that there’s any shame in being one of those, of course). And this matters because it recasts how geography enters into the critical theory imagination of democracy – here, James Bohman’s work is exemplary, because he elaborates on a sense of distanciated and distributed spatial relations as mediums through which people are exposed to to subjection to arbitrary rule by others, or, they are made vulnerable to domination.

Somewhere in all of that, I think I am trying to gesture at a difference between two ways of thinking about “why relationality matters politically”. Thinking of the strung-out relational constitution of social life is not interesting, politically, because it’s a way of telling moral stories about the constitution of identities through disavowal or by revealing the fact of being bound into other people’s actions without knowing it. It is interesting for a much more serious reason, but also perhaps a less all-encompassing one, related to questions of agency and consent and domination (again, Young is the best guide here).

Having got this far – having re-cast the idea of all affectedness and then related it to the value of non-domination, the story moves on to Chapter 8, The Sense of Injustice, in which the theme of the priority of injustice is explicitly elaborated. This theme kind of crept up on me as I was writing the book in 2015. And I’m still trying to work out quite what it involves. The idea as I present it in this Chapter has various sources, perhaps most importantly Judith Shklar’s book The Faces of Injustice, but also Elizabeth Wolgast, and some similar looking ideas in Hannah Pitkin and Cora Diamond, as well as a more systematic consideration by Thomas Simon in Democracy and Social Injustice. There is something vaguely ordinary linking this strand of reflection on the theme. I link this strand of thought to another strand, coming out of critical theory, especially Axel Honneth – and through back him to Barrington Moore, Jr. – and also Rainer Forst. And then, thirdly, a strand of thought which is basically Amartya Sen, most explicitly in his The Idea of Justice. Finally, Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, another book that starts off from Shklar’s provocation, and which is a really interesting combination of analytical political philosophy and strands of poststructuralist feminist theory.

That may or may not seem like a random collection of thinkers, but I think it is actually quite tightly drawn together around a shared prioritization of the sense of injustice as the dynamic of democratization. The argument for the priority of injustice, or at least my grasp of it, goes something like this:

  • First, determinations of injustice can and are made independently of a prior theory of justice (or, to put it another way, you don’t need a universal theory of justice to make judgments about the injustice of a situation).
  • Second, this follows from the fact that injustice has its own texture, a phenomenology of its own (though not a singular one, for sure) – it is not simply a function of the absence of justice or the failure of some party to act justly. Injustice is better understood on the analogy of health and disease (a thought that first came to me at the suggestion of Jouni Häkli on one of the early occasions when I tried to talk about all of this) – illness is not an absence of health, it is a positive condition – diseases have causes and conditions all of their own. One has a cold, or catches the flu.
  • Thirdly, injustice is felt (rather than rationally apprehended by reference to principles) – there are different versions of this argument, in Shklar, Moore, Honneth and others. One implication is that negative feelings – anger, revenge – might be important animating passions of struggles against injustice. But this also has implications for how one imagines the possibility of developing a democratic methodology of the sort implied by Shklar’s argument that the expressions by victims of injustice should be accorded a privilege of some sort (I try to outline some of those implications in the ‘supplementary’ paper on Geography and the priority of injustice).

There’s a lot more to say about this whole theme – it’s a long chapter! One thing that follows from it is that we would do well to not think that justice is an ideal, without thinking the smart thing that follows from that observation is that it is a mere illusion. Justice is done as a response or remedy to some harm or other – it is not a pure phenomenon poorly realised, it is a mark both of an imperfect world and of the possibility of betterment. Which is a thought that might route us back to the theme of the ‘ethnographic emergence’ of the meaning of normative values that was discussed earlier in the book – in given contexts, the meanings of justice, for example, will bear the historical traces of specific harms and compromises, and it might be worth exploring the consequences of that fact.

Another issue that arises from all this is the proposition that injustice is a public phenomenon, related to an argument about the double sense in which claims-making is made central to the recognition and redress of injustices: claims as assertions made against a certain state of affairs and addressed to others, and assertions as acts which need to be processed in some sense or other. That’s a theme I need to develop further and the full implications of which require deeper analysis – not least, I think because it might be key to avoiding what I can see might well be a potential trap for any injustice-centred account of political life, an issue identified in Samuel Moyn’s genealogy of the rise of the politics of human rights since the 1970s. One of the Moyn’s suggestions is that the rise of human rights as an alternative global activist imagination and associated ascendancy ideals of human dignity embedded in human rights campaigning, in law, and in political philosophy involves a redefinition of the relations between morality and politics “around the worst than can transpire in history, rather than some better order that could be achieved through political contest and struggle” (see Moyn, S. 2014. Human Rights and the Uses of History. London, Verso, p. 33). One challenge of developing an injustice framework is, then, to work through how to avoid this problem of settling, as it were, for trying to avoid the worst rather than striving towards doing things better. But that might be for another book.

Anyway, so that is the narrative sequence of Part 3 of The Priority of Injustice, and it makes perfect sense in my head – reconstructing the theoretical significance of the theme of affectedness in democratic theory (Chapter 6), opening this out to a consideration of the specific form of harm, domination, made central in critical theories of democracy (Chapter 7), and then drawing these two strands together by teasing out the shared emphasis on the priority of injustice in what might appear to be disparate traditions of political thought (Chapter 8).

Now the book is finished, I have to decide what to do next with this whole argument.






On The Priority of Injustice II: Two Cheers for Structural Analysis:

I have already admitted that I love the cover of The Priority of Injustice, but I should also say that I am delighted to have a book about democracy that is actually published in Athens, and not Athens in Greece, but Athens in Georgia – a place that resonates in different ways for me, as the home of the B52s and REM of course, but also where my sister’s dog Betty Boop was bionically reconstructed and where I spent the oddest Valentine’s Day of my life and where I once bought an original copy of the Warren Commission Report for $1.

The associations with particular places that this admittedly rather abstract book has for me brings us to another theme running through The Priority of Injustice which I need to remember and affirm, namely the degree to which the value of universality depends upon rather than being ruined by the acknowledgement of the situated qualities of life. Now, universality is one of the most denigrated terms of contemporary TheoryLand. One of the presumptions of my book is that academic fields which spatial theorists are often rather sniffy about – thought of as suffering from ‘anaemic’ spatial imaginations – might be sources of smarter styles of geographical analysis than is acknowledged. They might, for example, be much better at thinking carefully about the difference between universality and generality, or between particularity and specificity, than traditions of critical spatial theory, which tend too often to think that critiques of universalism in philosophy, for example, pertain primarily to the problem of whether certain concepts, ideas or principles can be applied everywhere.

I suggest in the book that discussions of universalism need to more carefully distinguish between a sense of universality as referring to an ambition to impartiality and a sense of universality as animating spirit of claims for inclusion (an argument drawn from, amongst others, Seyla Benhabib and Carol Gould). Part of the point of making the distinction is because it draws into view the variety of ‘genres of reasoning’ through which universality is articulated in passionate, partial registers. This argument is linked to an elaboration of the revised idea of ‘criteria’ to be found in Stanley Cavell’s work – where they are understood not as principles under which phenomena are placed and evaluated, but as means of ‘going on’ in new situations. The broader significance of this view of criteria is that it underscores how the proposition that ‘meaning is use’ is best understood as taking on its full force by reference to the idea that meanings change as they are applied to new situations. I discuss all of this in Chapter 2 of the book, Criteria for Democratic Inquiry, which covers, amongst other things, Hannah Arendt and Derrida on exemplary thinking and judgment as well as Cavell on criteria and Gallie on essentially contested concepts, all in order to outline what I take to be the notably geographical problem of how to understand democracy’s translability across different contexts (a problem that is actually neatly resolved by Charles Tilly in the best ever extended analogy between lakes and political life you will ever come across). Thinking of the meaning/use relation in terms of application – thinking that using concepts is precisely about using them in new situations – is also a way of underscoring the sense of the ordinariness of political concepts that I try to elaborate in the book, in so far as the theme of the ordinary in Cavell especially directs us to a sense in which newness is not a dramatic rupture from settled patterns, nor an extraordinary departure from established norms, but just a matter of ‘moves in new directions from what we have done before’ (to paraphrase Cora Diamond) in the course of ‘going on’ with action (to refer back to Cavell).

In the second half of the same chapter, via that analogy from Tilly, I link the philosophical account of the ordinariness of democracy as a concept to some more social scientific work that treats democracy in the same spirit – as ‘enacted’ in various forms and as ‘ethnographically emergent’, again stealing ideas from others (Mike Saward and Julia Paley respectively) – my book is as much a paean to my own favourite thinkers as anything else; it’s the work of a fan.

I use this line of argument to recommend a remarkably simple idea, culled from Albert Hirschman’s work on the lessons to learn from post-war modernization programmes (a precursor to his more famous account of the importance of analysing different combinations of exit/voice/loyalty to understand the dynamics of organizational fields). Hirschman suggested that one look into the “structural characteristics” of different projects, by which he meant the forms of leverage and the limits and path dependencies that determine the degree of what he calls “latitude” and “discipline” imposed by situations on the scope of discretion available to participants (this is all part of a more famous story about the “hiding hand” and why ‘development’ does not require preconditions already to be in place). The point of all this, in my book, is to suggest that political analysis should avoid presuming in advance that the causes behind observed conflicts are self-evident, by falling into the trap of  theoreticism, again, in which one always already knows in advance that expressions of discontent are indices of some ‘underlying’ structural cause (‘neoliberalism’, etc., etc., etc.). That sense of ‘structural’, the one that comes so easily to forms of critical analysis, might well underplay what Bernard Williams called “the significance of conflict”, which directs attention not only to an appreciation of causes and conditions but also to what conflicts mean to those involved, from the inside.

The concern with ‘structural characteristics’ in Hirschman is, then, a matter of demonstrating a certain sort of contextual sensitivity to the qualities, one might say (in order not to say ‘materialities’), of situations without lapsing into particularism.

And all of this, in Chapter 2, is then a precursor to the argument presented in a later chapter, Chapter 5 (The Significance of Conflict), when Hirschman returns, alongside Jon Elster and Helmut Dubiel, to help me outline a much more ordinary way of thinking about the much vaunted ‘irreducibility’ of contestation and antagonism in political life (who, after all, doesn’t recognize that?). My argument there is that rather than wallow in the odd worlds of ontological layerings and becomings, it might be more productive to follow a path of analysis focussed on making sense of ‘rationalities of action’, suggesting here that a series of conceptual distinctions found in various strands of thought – between distribution and recognition (Honneth, Fraser, Tully, etc.), or communicative and strategic action (Habermas), class and status (Fraser, again), arguing and bargaining (Elster, and Hirschmann, and Dubiel), perhaps convincing and persuading too (Habermas, and Rorty, and Diamond, etc.) – are best understood as aspects of any and all forms of action which can be combined in different ways (again, this is meant as a kind of heuristic redemption of ideas often taken in too categorical a way even when they are not explicitly ontologized). And all of this – this whole way of working out a sense of why looking at the ‘structural characteristics’ of situations might be important – is meant to culminate in the recommendation that one dimension (one of three) of a geographical analysis of political life would involve the diagnostic investigation of “the types of influence to which particular patterns of the exercise of power are susceptible”.

The distinction between thinking of ‘structural’ in terms of a contrast between the contingently observed and real causality, or, by contrast, in terms of a sensitivity to the latitudes and disciplines characteristic of situations, is crucial to differentiating between two models of ‘critique’ (another running theme of this book). In one, being critical is all about revealing that ‘power’ always lies behind observable phenomena, in a kind of debunking manoeuvre (this is far and away the most taken-for-granted understanding of the critical vocation in self-consciously ‘critical’ social and cultural analysis). In the other, being critical is simply a matter of clarifying the pressures and limits that orient possibilities of action in particular situations (which means that people who write drama might be better guides to the art of criticism than theorists trained in the skills of deducing the effects of cultural works).

From this second perspective, an operative concept of structure is a basic requirement of any form of social science analysis, however reluctant people might be to use the idea of structure itself (here is Roberto Unger explaining why). This relates back to an issue I touched upon last time, concerning the degree to which debates about the meaning of the distinction between politics and the political turn on the interpretation of the relationship between observed actions and their conditions.

Iris Marion Young, one of the stars of The Priority of Injustice, once made the point straightforwardly enough, pointing out that a ‘structural’ form of analysis is concerned with identifying the factors that position people in relationships that in turn help to shape their understandings, their capacities, their desires (on this reading, structure is a concept of possibility, not of necessity – that’s Unger’s point too). Young’s point is that ‘structural’ analysis is a characteristic of a certain sort of genre, a particular type of story. And this view of structure goes back to E.P. Thompson’s polemical revision of the notion of determination as ‘the setting of limits’ and ‘the exerting of pressures’ on action, an idea that is now finding a new life, mediated via the recovery of Raymond Williams’ allusive notion of “structures of feeling”, in non-representational theories of affect and atmosphere. Which just goes to show how that basic intuition about the structuring of action is not abandoned in avowedly post-structuralist theories – it’s just sublimated into ontological narratives of being and becoming, or suturing, or undecidability, or magmas of signification, and so on (that is, sublimated into the search for THE source of negativity or excess that allows one to posit the certainty of the possibility of change), as well as into the general fascination with functionalist accounts of how ‘subjects’ are made and re-made in all sorts of ways by forces that lie beyond them. More on that topic next time.

On The Priority of Injustice I: Arguing with Theory

It’s a funny experience, publishing a book – something that one has lived and worked with for perhaps years and invested all sorts of energies into finally comes out, and there is an odd sense of anti-climax (it’s a lot like finishing a PhD). But it’s also odd to actually read one’s own book in proper book form, bound and beautiful, even though The Priority of Injustice is pretty much the only thing I have been reading since at least the summer of 2015. There is a kind of terror involved (what does it read like?), but also a nice experience of affirmation, as you notice that there is maybe something coherent running through the whole thing (although maybe you have to have been reading, writing and editing it for more than two years to actually notice this). So, I have now read my own book, again, cover to cover, and annotated it in detail (but only in pencil…).  At some point in the future, certainly next Spring, I will have to talk about the arguments in the book, so I am going to take the liberty of writing a few short posts over the next little while in which I am going to say out loud, to myself at least, what some of the main themes of the book are, as a kind of mnenonic practice.

The first of the themes which are central to the overall arc of the book which I want to remind myself of is that of ‘arguing with theory’.

The Priority of Injustice is a book about theory, in the sense that, as I have previously mentioned, was once used by Talcott Parsons – it treats ideas as an archive of documents that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. But I also try to move away from an idea of Theory as a kind of standing body of ideas that one is meant to display mastery over (some hope), and instead actually try out my hand at theorizing. I realise that that immediately sounds perhaps even more pompous than the idea of mastering other people’s ideas (if it is taken as developing a whole raft of new concepts all of one’s own), but it seems to me a more appropriate, and modest ambition. (There are a couple of things I have read since writing The Priority of Injustice that express very clearly the idea of theorizing I am working towards in the book, Richard Swedberg’s The Art of Social Theory and John Levi Martin’s Thinking Through Theory – I mention them here not least to underscore another aspect of the argument I am making in the book, which is that a social theory imagination involves a different, less theoreticist style of reasoning than the sorts shared by convergent traditions of political theory and cultural theory).

There are two related senses in which I think of what I am doing in this book as theorizing.

First, I outline an approach to reading for the “spatial grammar” of different traditions of political thought, which is meant to contrast to a taken-for-granted approach in critical spatial disciplines such as human geography or urban theory of correcting the bad ontological assumptions of traditions of thought found to be inadequately attuned to 40 years worth of thinking about relational spatiality (a habit that extends to a standard style of critique of the spatial ontologies of policy-makers or journalists or corporations or one’s fellow citizens). Reading for the spatial grammar of theories is directed by a principle of charity, to borrow an idea from Donald Davidson, that is, of trying to maximise understanding across what might appear to be incommensurable vocabularies. The notion of grammar, then, in this formulation is meant to direct analytical attention “to the actions being performed in the use of words and concepts”, so that when one comes across thinkers making use of spatial and temporal concepts then the primary concern should be to take seriously “what is really at stake in their expression”. This first sense of theorizing at work in the book is related to a broader argument, developed in the first two chapters, about thinking of the meaning of normative concepts like democracy not by reference to etymological derivation but with reference to their use in new situations.

This ordinary way of thinking about concepts is linked to the second sense of theorizing in the book. It’s an approach that I seek to apply more fully in the three chapters of Part 3 of the book, in which I argue that the geographical turn in deliberative theories of democracy associated with discussions of topics like cosmopolitanism, global justice, or transnationalism is best interpreted as an occasion for a repeated disaggregation of the component parts of key principles, such as freedom, or equality, or participation. The point of developing this argument is to cash-out the suggestion I make at the start of the book, that we should think of ‘theory’ as something that “helps to direct our curiosity to issues that deserve further attention”. It leads me to recommend a heuristic notion of critical theory, borrowing this time from Andrew Abbott, where the aim of theorizing is to develop concepts “that help to orient new pathways to findings things out” – again, the contrast is meant to be with approaches to theorizing that develop models of what counts as proper politics or ideal democracy against which emergent forms always come up short. In Part 2 of the book, I elaborate this heuristic approach to the interpretation of concepts in order to to distinguish between different accounts of the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’. In what has become the standard interpretation of this distinction, the simple observation that action has conditions is transformed into strong claims about the apparent paradox that necessarily contingent foundations will always be prone to immanent forces of disruption. I suggest that the real value of the politics/the political distinction lies in the rather more prosaic task of helping “to open up new ways of investigating the conditions of political action”. It’s this version of the distinction that I then develop further in the reconstruction of the all-affected interests idea in Part 3 of the book, which I present not as a prescriptive rule for determining the scope of democratic inclusion or the form of rule, but as a guide to the analysis of the geographies of claims-making.

It’s these two related ways of theorizing – I call them ordinary in places, heuristic in others, depending on the philosophical inflection in play at that moment – that I have in mind when I claim, towards the end of the book, that The Priority of Injustice is meant as “kind of prolegomena to democratic inquiry in a geographical sprit” – as I’ve said before, I think of this book as a kind of space-clearing exercise, as an attempt to clarify problems and issues which requite further investigation.

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.