The Afterlives of Theory: representing ‘the priority of injustice’

Academic work has a weird temporality to it, things develop slowly, research takes time, getting things published even longer. Having taken a long time to write, once published, books make their own way in the world. The post-publication pathways of The Priority of Injustice seem now to have now passed through the review stage. In addition to two ‘Author Meets…’ sessions now published in Political Geography and the AAG Review of Books, the book has been nicely reviewed by Alan Latham (who does raise the pertinent question of why people like me worry so much about traditions of thought that take no notice of the academic worlds which people like both of us actually inhabit) and Jean Carmalt (who compared the book to a Jackson Pollock picture, I think in a good way).

I now seem to be in the stage where I find myself speaking on behalf of the argument laid out in the book – representing it one might say. (If you’re keen, you can now watch me on YouTube talk to these themes at the CONGEO online meeting in December, the Conference on Political Geography, Geopolitics, and Territory Management, organised by Brazilian geographers).

The very first review of the book was written by Stephen Przybylinski, and last week I took part in a Zoom-mediated seminar organised by Stephen as part of the Just North research programme, a European-wide research network anchored at Uppsala University (amongst other things, the project has developed some excellent resources outlining the key aspects of different traditions of theorising justice). Along with Sophie Watson and Mustafa Dikeç, both ex-OU colleagues, I spoke about what I made of the idea of ‘spatial justice’.

Spatial justice is actually not a theme I have a strong attachment to: it’s one of a family of ideas around which justice-issues have been discussed in and around GeographyLand over the last three or four decades (One thought I floated during the seminar was that this particular strand of thought might have something to do with the coming-late to spatial theory in planning studies, where the influence of Lefebvre and ‘the production of space’ theme has been perhaps more singularly influential than in human geography). The discussion last week also helped clarify for me, at least, the degree to which ‘spatial’ in the formula ‘spatial justice’ refers not just to the idea that forms of inequality, or exploitation, or domination have spatial manifestations, but to the stronger tradition of thinking that the main task is to locate the root causes of these forms of harm – in the dynamics of ‘the production of space’, ‘the urbanization of capital’, ‘accumulation by dispossession’, perhaps even in the ‘constitutive movement of spatialization’ of political itself. Without rehearsing the argument all over again, the ‘priority of injustice’ approach outlined in the book and elsewhere addresses the limits of thinking that ‘critical analysis’ consists primarily of knowing about root causes. It directs attention instead to the variable geographies of claims-making processes, and in so doing it promotes a more pluralistic sense of what geographical vocabularies are good for in analysing political practices: from this perspective, there isn’t really anything interesting to say in an ontological register about space or spatiality (God forbid). [Gary Bridge’s work on ‘situational justice‘ has developed some of the implications of this way of ‘thinking spatially’].

The Priority of Injustice was presented as a prolegomena to a further inquiry, although I can’t say I had a clear sense of exactly what directions I would follow once it was finished. In amongst other things, my own sense of where further work, by me at least, developing the core themes of the book might lead falls into two areas:

First, it would be useful to actually flesh out the conceptual theme of the priority of injustice more fully – in my book, it was only the explicit focus of the final chapter, a kind of end point after journeying through various other issues in critical theory and democratic thought. The idea I was trying to capture, and name, is articulated in what one might think of as a minor tradition of political thought – perhaps inaugurated by Judith Sklair, although with antecedents in the work of Hannah Pitkin, Barrington Moore Jr, Elizabeth Wolgast, Anthony Woozley, and Edmond Cahn. There is also critical theory strand of thinking along these lines, including Nancy Fraser, James Bohman, Axel Honneth, Rainer Forst, but especially Iris Marion Young. And then there is Amartya Sen. That, roughly, is the three-way genealogy I sketched in The Priority of Injustice. There are important theoretical differences in amongst all those thinkers (some ordinary language philosophy, some third generation critical theory, some social choice theory). These differences are also evident in recent, more explicit attempts to elaborate on the priority of injustice theme (sometimes using that phrase, sometimes not – I’m doing the work of suggesting the associations): work by Eric Heinze, Francisco Blanco Brotons, Brunella Casalini, Vittorio Bufacchi, and Herbert Spiegelberg. Some of this recent work is more philosophical in orientation, even tending towards replacing theories of justice with equally foundational concepts of injustice; perhaps the more interesting strand is work that opens up the task of political theorising to more worldly, if not necessarily empirical, forms of analysis: this includes the work of Thomas Simon, picking up on Sklair’s provocations, and Michael Goodhart (as well as Sen’s The Idea of Justice). And all of this work might belong to an emergent shift of aspect, towards the analysis of ‘negative‘ phenomena such as evils, harms, injuries, vulnerabilities, and wrongs – not simply as unfortunate indications of ‘non-ideal’ situations, but as constitutive dimensions of normativity itself. Cora Diamond’s work, for example, would belong to that expanded field. (I’m just thinking aloud to myself now).

So, that’s one pathway worth pursuing – to see if it’s possible to elaborate some family resemblances across those overlapping strands of thought.

Second, it turns out that an empirical pathway for exploring the priority of injustice theme has opened itself up, which is nice. One thing that the idea of ‘spatial justice’ does indicate, like say the idea of racial justice, or environmental justice, or climate justice, is that issues of justice always arise in relation to some more or less substantive object – discussions about justice take on meaning in so far as they are about something, some issue of some sort. The ‘about-ness’ of justice isn’t incidental, merely practical or non-ideal, or a matter of application – it’s at the core of the type of conceptual priority flagged in the phrase ‘the priority of injustice’. Anyway, I now find myself working on a research project which investigates empirically the generation and processing of claims of injustice in relation to a specific field of contention, exactly the type of inquiry envisaged in The Priority of Injustice. This project looks at claims-making in the conjuncture of post-Brexit administrative reform and programmes of digital governance, taking as its empirical focus the politics surrounding the UK government’s European Union Settlement Scheme. One argument I have been proposing, in making representations on behalf of the priority of injustice, is that there is geography of claims-making that deserves more attention. This project isn’t, on the face of it, terribly geographical in its focus, not right now anyway, as we start out, but that might be an important methodological principle at play there – rather than setting off looking for certain sorts of spatial processes or practices, we might find it more fruitful to allow the geographies of this particular field of contentious claims-making to emerge through the process of inquiry.

Place, Space and Politics Book Series

If anyone out there has an idea for a book that might fit the remit of the Routledge Research in Place, Space, and Politics Series, then do have a look at the instructions for submitting a proposal, or get in touch with me if you prefer. To get a feel for the range of issues and approaches covered in the Series, you can find a list of all the titles published so far here. And here is a reminder of the aims of the Series:

“The Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics Series offers a forum for original and innovative research that explores the changing geographies of political life. It seeks to draw into focus emerging interdisciplinary conversations about the spaces through which power is exercised, legitimized and contested. Titles within the series range from empirical investigations to theoretical engagements, and authors include scholars working in overlapping fields including political geography, political theory, development studies, political sociology, international relations and urban politics. The series seeks to engage with a series of key debates about innovative political forms, including topics such as transnational mobilization, global justice movements, global governance, the right to the city, the commons, new public spaces, cosmopolitanism, the digitalization of governance and contention, material politics, new localisms, and policy mobilities; and to address key concepts of political analysis such as scale, territory and public space. This series provides a forum for cutting edge research and new theoretical perspectives that reflect the wealth of research currently being undertaken around new forms of spatial politics.”

Algorithmic Politics after Brexit

So, it turns out that Kuba Jablonowski, Sam Kinsley and I have been successful in an application to the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit programme, part of the UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) initiative, for a project entitled ‘Algorithmic politics and administrative justice in the EU Settlement Scheme’ (The EUSS is the UK government scheme designed to determine the post-Brexit UK immigration status of EU citizens and their families who are currently living in the UK under EU free movement law. One might think of the EUSS as a live experiment in how ‘the right to have rights‘ is being enacted in one contemporary context).

The project will run from the start of 2021 through to the end of 2023. Here’s a quick summary:

“The research aims to analyse the process of administrative reform associated with Brexit, and the intersection of this process with the digitalisation of administration and governance in the UK. It takes the evolution of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) as its empirical entry-point. By investigating how grievances and claims of injustice emerge from the operation of the EUSS and are monitored and challenged in the public sphere, the research will seek to understand how practices of administrative justice are reconfigured by the interaction of automated algorithmic systems with rights-based practices of monitoring, advocacy and litigation.”

Watch this space – I’m sure we’ll post further information as the project gets underway.

Researching Popular Responses to Covid-19: New Website

There is now a dedicated website for the ‘Living with risk and responsibility‘ project I am working on with Nick Clarke exploring popular responses to Covid-19, making use of Mass Observation materials generated this year. You can find it here:

Do let us know any questions or queries you might have about the project.

The Strange Case of Urban Theory

One of the last things I did before the start of the first lockdown was submit a paper for publication, something which now seems like a very old-fashioned thing; who knows, perhaps time will allow for that sort of thing again, one day in the future. Anyway, the paper is now published, online in advance, in the Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society: it’s titled ‘The Strange Case of Urban Theory’, and is part of a special issue soon to go live on the theme of ‘Urban and Regional Theory: Negotiating Generalisation and Particularity’. The paper is one of the outputs of the Leverhulme project on ‘the urbanization of responsibility‘ that I held, formally, from 2014-2016, but which of course still lingers in life and mind in various ways. It’s my effort to say something into the debates in and around urban studies about the geographies of theory, comparison, that sort of thing. And it was an opportunity to finally cite David Harvey’s Explanation in Geography, approvingly.

This is the abstract of the paper:

“Recent debates in urban theory have centred on the problem of whether universal concepts can have applications to particular places. These debates could benefit from more serious attention to how urban thought involves styles of analogical reasoning closer in spirit to casuistry than to explanatory theory. The difficult status of ‘the case’ in urban studies is explored through a consideration of different types of universality in this field, leading to a re-consideration of ideas of experimentalism and wicked problems. Further attention should be given to the multiple styles of reasoning through which urban knowledge is produced and circulated.”

Access to the published paper requires a subscription to the journal of course – send an email and I’ll send you a copy; or, you can access the final pre-publication version here.

Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19

It’s not exactly good news to find out that you have been successful for a funding bid to do research on Covid-19 – it generates a rather ambivalent response, the usual sense of self-satisfaction that such news generates tempered, to say the least, by the situation that is its very condition of possibility. Anyway, I’m already over thinking things – Nick Clarke and I have been awarded funding under the British Academy’s Special Research Grants: Covid-19 scheme, for a project entitled Learning to Live with Risk and Responsibility: Understanding Popular Responses to COVID-19. Nick is the PI on the project, which builds on his previous work using materials from Mass Observation to examine popular understandings of politics in the UK, and which arose out of conversations between us sparked by a blogpost I wrote just at the start of lockdown, which in turn was riffing off a set of conceptual themes from a research project from what nows seems like previous life that we worked on together, which investigated what we called ‘grammars of responsibility‘ in everyday life. At Exeter, the project is part of a wider set of humanities and social science projects on Covid-19 related topics, curated by the Wellcome Centre for Environments and Cultures of Health and The Exeter Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences (Egenis).

Anyway, in place of a fuller explanation of what we are meant to do on the project, which I guess we’ll get to writing about sometime between exam boards and online pivots to blended enhancement, here is the short summary of the project:

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, people living in the UK have been asked to act responsibly in novel ways because of the risks their behaviour poses to themselves and others, and their role in complex chains of causation. We aim to investigate how citizens have engaged with these demands, with the objective of contributing to conceptual and empirical understandings of popular responses to emergency situations including future pandemics. Specifically, making use of contemporaneous qualitative data available through the Mass Observation Project, we seek to develop a better understanding of how people interpreted sometimes conflicting demands to act responsibly in relation to COVID-19 and translated them into practices of everyday life.”

On the Abolition of the Geography Department

I’ve been working on the ‘online pivot‘ a lot just recently, thinking about the challenges of adjusting teaching and learning provision for the forthcoming academic year, starting in September, in the context of an ongoing situation in which ‘face-to-face’ forms of education will continue to be constrained and subject to ongoing disruptions. Thinking about teaching and learning at a distance, which is what all this is about, is a particular challenge for academic fields like geography, which are so heavily invested in forms of embodied, experiential learning not only in the form of ‘wet’ or ‘muddy’ labs, but especially perhaps that diffuse range of activities bundled under the name ‘the field’. At the same time as all of this, I also find myself sitting in university level meetings in which issues of equality, diversity, racism, harassment, and hate crime in UK higher education are increasingly described by reference to the idea of ‘decolonialising’ universities and curricula. This vocabulary has quickly found its way into the vernacular of senior management and into institutional initiatives around these issues. It’s an interesting example of how theoretical ideas make their way into worldly contexts. Somewhere in the back of my head, there’s a connection between these two strands of current debate in and around higher education.

In Geography, there has been a series of recent interventions around the theme of decolonising the discipline (see for example, pieces by Pat Noxolo, Sarah Radcliffe, and Tariq Jazeel). In these debates, connections are often posited between the current profiles of academic staff and student bodies in university-level geography departments (very white); the substance of curricula and research agendas; and the ‘origins’ of academic geography in practices of exploration and scientific analysis closely associated with colonialism and imperialism (Don’t tell anyone, but before he was a proponent of eugenics, Francis Galton was publishing accounts of his travels in Africa in The Geographical Journal).

It’s not at all clear that Geography, as it is currently institutionalised in British higher education, does actually have its origins in nineteenth-century colonial exploration and imperial science, nor by what mechanism any such putative origin is still meant to be active today. It might be better to think of Geography as it exists now being formed through a series of quite deliberate breaks with traditions of gentlemanly science. That’s what the formation of the Institute of British Geographers was about. It’s what in no small part the ‘quantitative revolution’ was about too. That’s an old argument, it’s not mine. It’s also notable that the historiography of geography in North America has paid much more attention to the post-war contexts of contemporary Geography than is the case in the UK (after all, who cares about the rise and fall of town and country planning?).

I argued long ago that there is a dynamic whereby Geography’s grubby histories are occasionally rediscovered and re-animated in order to provide scope to engage, in different ways, with theoretical ideas drawn from other disciplines (most usually from the humanities). Invoking the history of a discipline is, of course, one of the obvious ways in which the coherence of such a thing as Geography – as a singular field that can be surveyed and evaluated – is discursively constructed. Debates about decoloniality are in part examples of that pattern, in which a coherent discipline called Geography comes into view as a necessary projection that is required for the articulation of a critical perspective of some sort. Geography has a kind of fantasy coherence, conjured into existence on those plenary occasions, in print and in person, when it is necessary to ponder ‘what is to be done (with Geography)’.

The idea of decoloniality is, of course, a highly theoretical one, part of series of distinctive intellectual traditions. There is a geography to ‘decolonial’ ideas, too. As suggested, there is also a heavy inflection towards intellectual imaginaries drawn from the humanities in discussions of decoloniality. These discussions in part overlap with, in part challenge, in part support a broader family of intellectual debates, including postcolonial theory, arguments about southern theory, theory from the south, southern epistemologies, and forms of post-development thinking.

The different strands of thought that make up the emergent canon of decolonial theory certainly deserve more attention, and, one hopes, also deserve the same sort of critical scrutiny one would expect any other academic paradigm to be subjected to. For example, one might explore the degree to which decolonial theory relies upon and reproduces strongly culturalist accounts of the exercise of ‘power’. One might explore the difficult question of how ideas that emerge in relation to particular historical-geographical variations of ‘colonialism’ (associated with particular experiences of slavery, violence, revolution, and independence, for example) translate to places with different colonial histories (places, for example, where concepts of indigeneity might resonate very differently, if at all, or where very precise meanings of ‘settler colonialism’ might not be easily applicable without a certain loss of geographical and historical sensitivity). This is a well rehearsed theme in this field, for example in considerations of the extent to which Edward Said’s influential account of orientalist discourse could be applied to histories of European encounters with ‘Africa‘. It’s an issue that has a certain self-reflexive quality to it, in so far as the question of how well ideas of decoloniality translate across contexts entrain deeper issues about the ‘colonial’ legacies of practices of comparativism and concepts of diffusion. One might also consider the degree to which the recent interest in decolonial ideas reiterates a style of inter-generational trumping that is central to conventions of critique in the humanities.

What perhaps distinguishes discussions of decoloniality from previous discussions of, for example, postcolonialism, is the more assertive claims concerning institutional transformation. In this respect, it’s worth considering the lesson of perhaps the most famous example of a systematic effort at decolonizing a university curriculum – the move led by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o with Henry Owuor-Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to abolish the English Department at the University of Nairobi in the late 1960s. This was part of an explicit programme, the significance of which still resonates, to displace a Eurocentric canon and associated pedagogy, and to institutionalise African-centred literature and language programmes (as well as finding different exemplars for postcolonial African modernity, involving for example, reading lots of Japanese literature).

I wonder if this couldn’t be the model for Geography to follow. I say this because I suspect a large part of the problem with Geography, from a decolonising perspective, might be integral to the sense of vocation that might well be what most defines Geography as an academic discipline. To a considerable extent, Geography now exists institutionally in UK higher education as a clearing house for a disparate set of fields of research, some traditional ‘Geography’ fields (such as research into urban and regional issues), some re-framed fields (such as work on disease, or the re-badging of ‘physical geography’ in terms of Earth Systems Science or even Global Systems Science), and some novel fields (research on animal geographies or elemental geographies, for example). There’s nothing that really holds these fields together intellectually. While there might actually be some interesting ways in which concepts of relational space cross many of these fields of Geography, the distinctive thing about twenty-first century ‘Geography’ is that there is no systematic effort to project the unity of the discipline around any such shared epistemological object of analysis. Geography departments exist (sometimes really big ones) because of the saliency of the research undertaken therein to increasingly ‘challenge-led’ research agendas, and because they look like good models for that much vaunted value, ‘interdisciplinarity’. It’s easy enough to imagine quite a lot of what is currently collected under the label of Geography in British universities being distributed differently. In any given university, after all, one will likely find all the urbanists in Planning, or all the economic geographers in Business Schools, or soil scientists in free-standing research centres). None of this is a great problem, necessarily. It is not to say that geography has neither existence or future. Far from it. It does, however, raise the question of the type of existence and future Geography might have.

Geography does have a coherence at school level, as a popular subject for both GCSE and A Level study, but this coherence is not so much intellectual as it is related to a certain image of utilitarian value associated with Geography, not least as a subject that bridges the divide between school and university. Geography at schools has, no doubt, some intellectual substance to it – lots of sustainability, for example, and an implicit if not explicit sense of good (global) citizen-liness. It’s all too common for academic geographers to fall into clichés about the stereotypical Geography undergraduate student. But it is true that there is a specific sense of what Geography is good for, as a school subject and undergraduate degree, which sustains the relative strength of student recruitment to undergraduate Geography degrees in the UK. It’s that relative strength that in turn underwrites a great deal of the intellectual creativity of research undertaken in Geography departments in the UK (i.e. it’s because of a steady and predictable stream of undergraduates coming to university to do Geography degrees that the content of Geography degrees turns out to be such a surprise to those same students – all that Marxism, all that chemistry, all that politics, all those statistics).

The utilitarianism associated with Geography – the sheer weight of the idea that it’s a useful subject, beneficial to those who study it and, through them, to everyone else too – is deeply ingrained in the culture of the field at school and at university (and utilitarianism has impeccable colonialist credentials of course). And I am even inclined to hypothesise that it’s here that one would find the only significant line of continuity between geography’s ‘origins’ in Western colonial and imperial projects and Geography as a university discipline today. The continuity lies in a resilient image of what a geographical education is good for. It’s an image that is not necessarily formalised in print, but it is widely taken for granted, and very often explicitly celebrated. It is an image embedded in the centrality of the idea of ‘the field’ and of ‘fieldwork’ to geographical education at all levels; in a pervasive empiricism in even the most ‘theoretical’ looking areas of human geography research; in the willing embrace of the most instrumental aspects of the ‘impact agenda’; and in the overwhelming, inescapable concern with demonstrating the ‘relevance’ of geography – to policy, to public life, to advocacy, to activism. It’s in this related set of ideas of a Geographers’ vocation that links Geography at schools to Geography at university; it’s not necessarily reflected at all in the content of degree curricula (but it often is). It is reproduced through a set of embodied practices through which a certain sort of intellectual personae is cultivated.

In short, if there is a legacy that links Geography now, in British universities, to Geography as it emerged as an academic and school subject some 150 years ago, then it lies in the practices that reproduce the idea that knowing about other people and other places is a way of sloughing off one’s own prejudices, as well as those of one’s students, all for the benefit of those other people and those other places. In short, it is the idea of a geographical education as an edifying project, aimed at transforming the very sense of self of its subjects, that remains a constant, and which remains central to even the most radical looking strands of contemporary geography, from self-consciously activist geographies to advocacy around climate change. It’s that sense of edification that perhaps also accounts for the attraction to humanities-sourced styles of critical distinction (which are misleading in so far as they suggest that debates about pedagogy centred on a canon of texts are relevant to the varied pedagogies found in Geography departments. They’re not really). It’s an idea expressed most clearly in the recurring fascination with writing about ‘responsibility’, not as an object of analysis, but as the second-order genre through which a particular intellectual self-concept that underwrites the practices of a properly geographical personae is problematized as a work of self-cultivation. The ‘Geography and Responsibility’ genre is the primary way in which a plenary sense of Geography is now conjured into existence.

In so far as discussions about decolonizing Geography focus not just on the content of Geography teaching and research, but on the social profile of Geography student bodies and staffing, and in so far as those patterns might be strongly related to the utilitarian identity of Geography at schools and universities, and more broadly to the overwhelming emphasis on ‘relevance’ and ‘responsibility’ that shapes undergraduate recruitment as well as progression in the discipline after undergraduate level, then perhaps the most significant contribution that could be made to the project envisaged by proponents of decolonising the discipline would be, in the spirit of Ngũgĩ, to imagine the abolition of university Geography departments. In order, you understand, to see if it’s possible to re-imagine creative ways of redistributing all those things that currently fall under that label around different formations of intellectual personae. This is not, as far as I am aware, and despite the impeccably decolonial credentials of this proposal, something that has so far been entertained in debates about these issues.

And if that sounds facetious, well, I guess the only morally serious alternative would be to try to picture what a geographical education that abandoned the image of an edifying, responsible vocation could possibly look like.




Ron Johnston

I was sad to hear of the death of Ron Johnston, whose work has been so important in shaping the sense of professional identity of so many ‘Anglo-American geographers’ for many years. One of my prouder claims to fame is to have once taught a Political Geography course with Ron – when I worked at Bristol, responsibility for a Year 2 course on that sub-discipline fell to me (my take on cultural things wasn’t quite of the right sort). I was keen to cover electoral geography as part of the course, because it’s an important field of course, but also because Ron’s work with Charles Pattie and others is amongst the very best examples of why ‘geography matters’, in both senses of the phrase. I could have prepared and presented lectures on that topic myself, but it seemed a missed opportunity to not have the man himself do them. Ron wasn’t much involved in undergraduate teaching at that stage, but I asked him if he would ‘guest’ for a couple of weeks, and he said ‘Yes’ without hesitation. I’ve always thought of it as a little like the Marshall McLuhan moment in Annie Hall – “And here is the actual Ron Johnston”. As I recall, Ron’s lectures – clear and lucid and passionate about understanding political processes – focussed on the ways in which Labour in the 1990s had mastered the art of winning elections (and engaging effectively with the politics of boundary drawing). And, obviously, he talked to the students about Swindon (back then, with two Labour MPs – there won’t be another Labour government until they can win at least one of those seats back).

Ron occasionally sent me emails about a post on this blog, when it touched upon the recent history of geography for example, or on Swindon. I dare say that Ron was a little bit more ambivalent about the place than he let on – the last time I talked properly to him, about 4 years ago, we talked about places he remembered from growing up which were, then, for me places I lived around the corner from. I seem to remember him admitting that he actually grew up in Chiseldon, which is a small village on the outskirts of Swindon on the way to Marlborough, having been born and initially living slap bang in the middle of ‘new town’ Swindon, by the Town Hall. Most recently, he got in touch after I wrote about Swindon’s place in the history of post-war social science research, with an additional reference I had not mentioned, a fact about the political power wielded about David Murray-John (I’m not sure if this was the focus of his undergraduate dissertation), and ending with a recollection of hearing Howard Newby “on Radio 4 in the 1990s misquoting Johnson – ‘If you are tired of London you are tired of life, if you are tired of Swindon you have been there ten minutes’.”

Late last year, I found myself in a meeting of WEA tutors from across the South West, talking to a man from Tiverton, who amongst other things was actively involved in local associations of Ringers – so I asked, and Yes, he was referring to bellringers, and Yes, of course he knew who Ron Johnston was. Ron will be widely missed across many worlds I suspect.

Partial Reading

As I mentioned the other day, there seems to have been a feeling about that being in lockdown is an occasion to catch up on lots of reading. It’s an interesting genre, the ‘what to read while socially distancing’, because it implicitly acknowledges a kind of constitutive anxiety about not having read enough (of the right things) that certain sorts of people, people like me, suffer from. It’s a weird anxiety to have, not least because to a large extent, reading it what I do for a living – even the kind of writing I do is often a form of commentary on other texts, on things I’ve read (about).

Reading is a many-sided thing in my corner of the academic world. I read lots of emails, on very different topics and of different genres; I read minutes of meetings and agendas and drafts of policy documents and exam papers; I read student essays, and more specifically, I mark them, which is a very specific kind of reading; I read letters of recommendation; and I also re-read things I have written, things like student handbooks, exam questions, carefully crafted e-mails to colleagues.

Then there is the strange world of reading academic literature, the very crux of what people like me do. Reading academic papers and books is a rather odd form of reading, sometimes more intense than the kind of reading you do on holiday on the beach, but very often a lot more superficial. Reading of this sort can be very physical (you do it with a pen or pencil in hand, sitting up straight). It involves annotating, underlining; I write all over the things I read (much to my mothers’ enduring distaste), cross-referencing, inferring, remembering. I often read academic literature out loud, quietly, and much to the amusement of my children, because only by sounding things out do certain sorts of arguments make sense. These aren’t necessarily very effective ways of learning, it should be said. Much of this sort of reading is done for a purpose – to cite, to elaborate, to gloss what has been said. Academic reading can take the form of systematically superficial speed-reading (a large part of teaching undergraduate students in a ‘research intensive’ university involves teaching a set of implicit, poorly formulated, often unacknowledged skills of skimming texts). This sort of reading tells us something about the ways in which lots of academic writing takes the form of reporting things – how experiments were designed, evidence generated, results analysed, conclusions justified.

And sometimes, in academic worlds, reading is something myself and others do to each other.

There are, in turn, a whole set of ways of reading which are themselves forms of getting to know things. This may include various ‘methodologies’: discourse analysis, textual analysis; or more precise variants of these catch-all terms: deconstruction, or reader-response criticism, or generalised semiotics (much disdained these days, but oddly pervasive in those fields which most loudly disclaim ‘textualism’ or ‘the discursive’ yet continue to suppose that ‘non-human’ agency is best affirmed by imagining that the whole world is structured like a grammatically correct sentence).

And then there is the strange world of TheoryLand, a field of work which relies on a whole set of practices of reading (and writing about one’s reading), which are in large part at odds with the assumptions about reporting that define ‘normal’ academic reading. TheoryLand is a world defined perhaps above all by a certain sort of pomposity about proper reading, of close, immersive reading – it’s a pomposity that has its clearest expression in discussions of the ‘ethics of reading’ by writers such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. In TheoryLand, you are meant to have read loads of things, but also to have read them really, really carefully, so that all texts worthy of this sort of reading (and who decides that?) are read as carefully, sequentially, as their authors assume they are going to be read when they are writing them. It’s a world shaped by assumptions about about being taken over by the text that underwrite formal and informal ideas about the virtues of ‘difficulty’ as a marker of value. The pleasures of the text, in this sort of reading, are oddly disembodied, apart perhaps when people are doing criticism, which often takes the form of saying that someone else hasn’t read things as well, as carefully, as faithfully, as the critic.


Reading Assignments

In my world, a large part of the process of induction into professional academic life works through books, in particular, in the form of telling students that ‘you should read this‘. Knowing what to tell a student to read is pretty much the only talent I have, although just to be clear, knowing what they should read is not quite the same thing as having read what you are recommending (and that’s neither as shameless or shameful as it might sound): one of the requirements of academic seniority is learning that it’s OK to get other people to read the things you haven’t had time to read yourself.

This idea that there are some things one just must read brings to mind, perhaps, the idea that there is a canon to master. That might be the case in some fields, in the humanities. It’s not an idea that makes much sense in GeographyLand, although there are people who think it should. I once tried to invent a very sad after-dinner party-game for Geographers, in which each person tried to admit to the books that they hadn’t read that it seemed to them that everyone else thinks that one really should have done. But it turns out, in GeograpyLand, that few if any of the things that you haven’t read actually rise to the level of generating professional shame. Anyone you are likely to play this game with, by virtue of being a professional academic in GeographyLand, is living proof that the canon arrived at in this way isn’t really canonical anyway – on the basis of my sample, it turns out that it’s possible to get along fine without ever having read Explanation in Geography, or Traces on the Rhodian Shore, or Topophilia, or Uneven Development, or Pivot of the Four Quarters, or Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (or is it the other way around? Oh, it doesn’t matter).

I mentioned this ‘game’ to a graduate student (without a first degree in Geography), who said it reminded them of the Humiliation game in David Lodge’s Changing Places (not read it myself), where admitting to not having read Hamlet leads to professional disgrace for one character. Of course, this model of canonical knowledge, and the image of reading associated with it, does not travel well to fields where command of a textual field is not so central. In fact, I am inclined to think that the break out of Theory in GeographyLand over the last four decades or so (and it is worth remembering that the single most important work of geographical theory produced in that period is a singularly scholarly exercise in critical exegesis) has led to an interesting internal cleavage that mirrors, at one remove, the succinct definition of the division between ‘Continental Philosophy’ and analytical philosophy provided by Stanley Cavell (don’t ask me where). He suggests that ‘Continental Philosophy’ is a genre recognisable because writers in that tradition perform as if they have read everything there is worth reading (which it turns out might not be very much, if you’re Heidegger), whereas analytical philosophers profess to focus on problems as if they haven’t read anything at all (apart perhaps from Wittgenstein, who is often read as if he’d never read anything himself). There is a dizzying dynamic of knowing and knowing that both of these styles of thought sets in train – and there is a whole architecture of academic personae built around this broad distinction, revolving around a culture of pretending to read only for the things reported and a culture of pretending to read only for what things really mean.


The Pleasures of the Text?

Because reading is important to what I do professionally, and because what I do professionally is wrapped up in all sorts of anxieties associated with either not having read enough or not having read properly, I have a fraught relationship with reading for pleasure or relaxation. I’m not very good at reading novels – I tend to have to trap myself into doing this, by taking novels into the bath for example. Reading has all sorts of occasions and spaces in fact – I read a lot of Marx as a graduate student, for example, and an awful lot of that was on trains and buses. I always over pack books for plane journeys, and I have managed to read not only cricketers’ biographies but also very manly books about flying planes in a single flight. The reason for a beach holiday is primarily to force oneself to read things one might otherwise not get around to. I’m learning to like reading in the garden, listening to sparrows. Quite a lot of this reading (not the Marx) depends on finding ways of retreating or holding off other tasks or other distractions, in a kind of forced withdrawal, or it takes place in the interstices of other activities (on journeys, on holiday, waiting to do other things).

Reading as a way of passing the time, or killing time while waiting, or as escape, is rather a different practice from the sort of professional reading that academics and scholars and intellectuals do – it doesn’t figure much in arguments about the edifying worthiness associated with ideas of literary reading that are so common in the humanities. Because of this difficult relationship between reading and precious time, I fret quite a lot about starting novels, in case I start something which I can’t then maintain an interest in.

And one way of thinking about the different sorts of reading one can engage in is by thinking about the status of unfinished books. Academic books, of course, aren’t really meant to be read all the way through, from front to back. There’s no shame in reading bits of an academic book, selected chapters. I’m not worried about never having read all sorts of things, but I do worry about not having finished things I have started. I have never finished The Thin Man, because I quickly got the point about its importance lying in the quality of the dialogue early on and lost interest in the mystery. I never managed to complete Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder, because it’s one of those books which is rather transparently a bit of allegorised Theory, the kind of novel that reflects back to academic critics the kinds of ideas they always already project onto the literary in the first place. I should have finished Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about a town in self-imposed lockdown during the Spanish flu epidemic in the USA a hundred years ago, and keep thinking I should go back and do so now, but now it’s not so enticing a prospect; likewise, with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. When I was 16, I took Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on holiday with me because it was a set text for A Level English. I can remember reading Chapter 3 on the plane home (planes, again), and thinking it was a rather obvious metaphor for life’s struggles (it’s about a turtle trying to cross the road), and realising that I would have to write an essay about this chapter, which then seemed like a total waste of time when that is exactly the task that was assigned. I gave up English at that point, as well as never finishing the book, although I don’t think that I have ever managed to escape a love/hate attachment to the interpret-ability of things that revealed itself then.

I’ve now found the perfect way of dealing with this anxiety about not knowing what to start in case I don’t finish it. I’m walking around a lockdowned house, carrying a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities with me from room to room, and occasionally finding the time to read one of its short, essay-like chapters. It’s actually quite good fun. It’s modern, for sure, but not difficult in a writerly way – that’s not a kind of pleasure I find myself disciplined enough, or smart enough, to enjoy. I realise that this sounds like an absurdly pretentious sounding thing to drop into a blog post. But the point is that Musil didn’t finish this book. So I figure that it’s OK if I don’t either.





The Power of Pragmatism

If you are looking for something new and interesting to read in and amongst all the excitement, then look out for (or, pre-order) a new collection edited by Jane Wills and Bob Lake entitled The Power of Pragmatism. Further details are here. This is what it’s about:

“This book makes the case for a pragmatist approach to the practice of social inquiry and knowledge production. Through diverse examples from multiple disciplines, contributors explore the power of pragmatism to inform a practice of inquiry that is democratic, community-centred, problem-oriented and experimental. Drawing from both classical and neo-pragmatist perspectives, the book advances a pragmatist sensibility in which truth and knowledge are contingent rather than universal, made rather than found, provisional rather than dogmatic, subject to continuous experimentation rather than ultimate proof, and verified in their application in action rather than in the accuracy of their representation of an antecedent reality. The Power of Pragmatism offers a path forward for mobilizing the practice of inquiry and knowledge production on behalf of achieving what Dewey called a sense for the better kind of life to be led.”

And this is who is in it:

Part I: The power of pragmatism
1 Introduction: The power of pragmatism – Jane Wills and Robert W. Lake

Part II: Key thinkers, core ideas and their application to social research
2 Habits of social inquiry and reconstruction: A Deweyan vision of democracy and social research – Malcolm Cutchin
3 Appreciating the situation: Dewey’s pragmatism and its implications for the spatialisation of social science – Gary Bridge
4 Mead, subjectivity and urban politics – Crispian Fuller
5 Rorty, conversation and the power of maps – Trevor Barnes

Part III: ‘Truth’, epistemic injustice and academic practice
6 Embodied inequalities: Can we go beyond epistemologies of ignorance in pragmatic knowledge projects? – Susan Saegert
7 Truth and academia in times of fake news, alternative facts, and filter bubbles: A pragmatist notion of critique as mediation – Klaus Geiselhart
8 Learning from experience: Pragmatism and politics in place – Alice Huff
9 Reflections on an experiment in pragmatic social research and knowledge production – Liam Harney and Jane Wills

Part IV: Disciplinary applications in pragmatic research
10 Ecological crisis, action and pragmatic humanism – Meg Holden
11 Pragmatism, anti-representational theory and local methods for critical-creative ecological action – Owain Jones
12 Pragmatism and contemporary planning theory: Going beyond a communicative approach – Ihnji Jon
13 Exploring possibilities for a pragmatic orientation in development studies – Alireza F. Farahani and Azadeh Hadizadeh Esfahani

Part V: Conclusion and postscript
14 The quest for uncertainty: Pragmatism between rationalism and sentimentality – Robert W. Lake
15 Postscript: Who’s afraid of pragmatism? – Clive Barnett