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.

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

Must We Mean What We Do? Further Thoughts on Affect Theory

The second of two pieces I have written in appreciation, shall we say, of Ruth Leys’ book The Ascent of Affect, is now available online at the History of Human Sciences site, along with commentaries by Carolyn Pedwell, Rob Boddice, and Elizabeth Wilson, plus a response by Ruth. Thanks to Chris Millard and Felicity Callard for putting together the whole set, and inviting me to take part.

My piece in this review forum is entitled Must we mean what we do? and riffs on a theme in Ruth’s work, not just in the book but elsewhere too, about the importance of understanding ideas about pretending in making sense of intentionality, action, and related themes in philosophy, social theory, and cultural studies. It is, then, distinct from the piece in the nonsite review forum, in which I begin, at least, to elaborate on the theme of logical geographies of action – the ways in which arguments about agency, intention, behaviour, action, and so on are shaped by various spatial grammars of insides and outsides, relays, environments, and the like. There’s a connection between the themes in the two pieces, no doubt, and one day I might get enough time and space, and energy and enthusiasm, to write out in neat quite what it is. And whatever it is, it might also have something to do with the overlapping set of issues raised by Linda Zerilli in her engagement with criticisms of affect theory, including those of Leys, and specifically with different interpretations of the concept of intentionality.

The Priority of Injustice: Review Forum in AAG Review of Books

The second of two book review forums on The Priority of Injustice is now available online at the AAG Review of Books (here is the other review forum; there is a previous stand-along review of the book by Stephen Przybylinski in AAG Review of Books as well). The essays in this forum all come out of an Author Meets Critics session held at the Annual Meeting of the AAG back in 2018, in New Orleans, which now seems a long time ago. Huge thanks to Josh Barkan, Krisi Pauliina Kallio and Jenni Fluri for taking the time to take the book so seriously (as well as to Leila Harris who presented at the AAG session), and especially to my old comrade Michael Samers for organising the session and the review forum. A pre-publication draft of my own comments is available here. If you’d like a copy of the whole forum and can’t access the site, let me know.


Logical Geographies of Action: review forum on Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect

The latest issue of includes a review forum on Ruth Leys’ The Ascent of Affect, with contributions from myself, Felicity Callard, Phil Hutchinson and James Russel, as well as a response from Ruth herself. My piece uses Leys’ genealogy of scientific research on emotions to propose an analysis of ‘logical geographies of action‘ in recent debates in cultural theory and philosophy of mind; it overlaps (but not too much) with my thoughts on Linda Zerilli’s book on democratic judgment, not least in addressing different understandings of the meaning, shall we say, of uses of the word ‘intentionality‘. I have another distinct piece entitled ‘Must we mean what we do’, forthcoming sometime soon in another review forum on Leys’ book in History of the Human Sciences.

Spaces of Tolerance: New Book in Place, Space and Politics Series

Here are details of a new edited collected, Spaces of Tolerance: Changing Geographies and Philosophies of Religion in Today’s Europe, published in Routledge’s Place, Space and Politics series. Edited by Luiza Bialasiewicz and Valentina Gentile, this is, I think, a genuinely innovative collection, not only drawing together scholars from geography and Politics/IR and related fields, but doing so while engaging with issues in normative political philosophy too. Here’s the blurb:

“This book offers interdisciplinary and cross-national perspectives on the challenges of negotiating the contours of religious tolerance in Europe.

In today’s Europe, religions and religious individuals are increasingly framed as both an internal and external security threat. This is evident in controls over the activities of foreign preachers but also, more broadly, in EU states’ management of migration flows, marked by questions regarding the religious background of migrating non-European Others. This book addresses such shifts directly by examining how understandings of religious freedom touch down in actual contexts, places, and practices across Europe, offering multidisciplinary insights from leading thinkers from political theory, political philosophy, anthropology, and geography. The volume thus aims to ground ideal liberal democratic theory and, at the same time, to bring normative reflection to grounded, ethnographic analyses of religious practices. Such ‘grounded’ understandings matter, for they speak to how religions and religious difference are encountered in specific places. They especially matter in a European context where religion and religious difference are increasingly not just securitised but made the object of violent attacks.

The book will be of interest to students and scholars of politics, philosophy, geography, religious studies, and the sociology and anthropology of religion.”

And here is the tables of contents:

Introduction. Spaces of tolerance: Theories, Contested Practices and the Question of Context

– Luiza Bialasiewicz and Valentina Gentile

PART I: Negotiating Freedom and Religion: Tolerance, Neutrality, Conviviality

Chapter 1. The Scope of Religious Freedom in Europe: Tolerance, Democratic Equality and Political Autonomy – Valentina Gentile

Chapter 2. Neutrality, Toleration, and Religious Diversity – Peter Balint

Chapter 3. Toleration and Tolerance: Between Belief and Identity – Peter Jones

Chapter 4. Infrastructures for Living with Difference – Dan Swanton

PART II: Securing and Securitizing Religious Tolerance

Chapter 5. Religious Toleration and the Securitization of Religion – Sune Laegaard

Chapter 6. Militant secularism versus Tolerant Pluralism. A critical assessment of the European Court of Human Rights – Margherita Galassini

Chapter 7. The Limits of Toleration towards Syrian Refugees in Turkey: From Guesthood to Ansar Spirit – Ayhan Kaya and Ozan Kuyumcuoğlu

PART III: Everyday Spaces of Tolerance

Chapter 8. Paradoxical Visibilities: Purpose Built Mosques in Copenhagen – Lasse Koefoed, Maja de Neergaard and Kirsten Simonsen

Chapter 9. Mediating (in)visibility and publicity in an African church in Ghent: religious place-making and solidarity in the European city – Luce Beeckmans

Chapter 10. Charity, hospitality, tolerance? Religious organizations and the changing vocabularies of migrant assistance in Rome – Luiza Bialasiewicz and William Haynes

Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology at 30

David Seamon has forwarded on to me the 30th anniversary issue of Environmental and Architectural Phenomenology, which is, as ever, full of interesting updates on various aspects of ‘geographically’ inflected phenomenological work. This issue includes a thorough review of the field from Seamon himself, plus a wonderful list of no less than 23 definitions of phenomenology, for the uninitiated.

Intentionality and objectivity: Todd Cronan on Zerilli (and me)

I mentioned yesterday that my contribution to the Syndicate review forum on Linda Zerilli’s book touched upon the similarities and differences between her critique of affect theory and that developed by scholars associated with the ‘nonsite school’ of cultural criticism. In the spirit of dialogue encouraged by the Syndicate platform, Todd Cronan, one of the editors of, has posted a comment engaging with my own comments and Linda’s response, addressing ideas of intentionality, objectivity, interpretation and truth. Zerilli’s book elaborates on a political sense of objectivity indebted to Hannah Arendt, revolving around the theme of the conditions of sharing in a common world with others; Todd’s comment specifies some differences and clearly states the position associated with the nonsite school. The comment is a little hidden, so here it is in full:

“There is much to say here but there is one thing in particular–the question of objectivity–that makes what many of us at nonsite say unrecognizable. So there are several problems with the idea that “intentionality is closely associated with claims to objective truth.” The first is that, for us, intentionality is much more than closely associated with truth, it’s incomprehensible without it, and the second is that although Zerilli may think there’s some connection between truth and objectivity, we don’t; objectivity is not only not closely associated with truth, it’s not associated with truth at all. So on the one hand, there’s no meaning without intentionality and no meaning without truth, which is just to say that both meaning something and understanding something are normative–all interpretations must be either true or false (or some combination of the two). But on the other hand, no interpretations are objectively true or false.”

There’s much more to say around these issues, no doubt, not least, I suspect, some important disciplinary differences across fields of political theory and aesthetic theory. Some of these issues might well be further aired in a forthcoming ‘Tank’ in nonsite considering the significance of Ruth Leys’ recent book The Ascent of Affect. More on that when it appears.


The Priority of Injustice: Book Review Forum in Political Geography

Another day, another review forum, this time, on my own book, The Priority of Injustice. This one, in Political Geography, is the first of these forums to see the light of day (the other one is soon to appear in the AAG Book Review). Thanks to Sam Kinsley for coordinating this forum, as well as the ‘author-meets-critics’ conference session from last year out of which these commentaries emerged. And thanks to Jack Layton, Juliet Davis, Jane Wills, David Featherstone and Cristina Temenos, all of whom found things to like in the book and who each articulate in friendly tones the things they found wanting in it. If you have trouble accessing the forum, let me know. My response to the commentaries, ‘The all too human geographies of justice’, is also available here – it focusses on clarifying the sense of ‘structure’ (and by extension, of ‘critique’) and ‘the ordinary’ that are at work in the book.

Putting affect into perspective: further thoughts on Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment

Further to my previous post on the Syndicate review forum on Linda Zerilli’s A Democratic Theory of Judgment (also available here), my own comments are now live, as well as a generous response from Linda herself. My own thoughts focus on Zerilli’s critical engagement with the ontological turn to theories of affect in some strands of political theory, and how her own treatment of these issues overlaps with but also differs from the approach articulated by thinkers associated with including Walter Benn Michaels, Todd Cronan, and Ruth Leys.