Following up on my earlier post on Ruth Leys’ new book, The Ascent of Affect, Walter Benn Michaels has alerted to me to a new essay, published just yesterday, in which he clearly articulates some of the conceptual distinctions between experience, meaning, and intention that are central to what I dubbed the “nonsite school” approach to issues of affect and aesthetics.
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 nonsite.org, 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 nonsite.org ‘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.
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.
The third theme that I have noticed running through The Priority of Injustice in my own re-read through of the whole thing follows on from the themes of ‘spatial grammar’ and the imperative of not seeking to correct other people’s flawed ontologies that I have already mentioned. I have come to view with deep distrust views of the task of Theory as a means of laying bare the aesthetic or affective or cognitive devices that reproduce people’s subjection. The idea that ‘people have been got at’, as Alan Sinfield once put it, is a recurring theme of a great deal of contemporary critical thought, especially when influenced by traditions of ideology critique – an influence that can be traced from theories of ideological state apparatuses through ideas about discourse and representation through to current fascinations with affect and atmospheres and algorithms. Across this range, the idea that politics – both of the sort one doesn’t approve and of the sort one hopes to support – works through changing the subject is a constant.
My interest in the theme of the ordinary is in no small part shaped by an effort to find a way of thinking that escapes the scholastic frame of reference that underwrites the ‘changing the subject’ paradigm. The ordinary is a theme that one can find in various thinkers – in Raymond Williams or Charles Taylor, for example, it is used as a counterpart to ideas of the privileged or the elect qualities of culture. This sense does have some presence in the more specific, but also somewhat elusive, sense of the ordinary that is indebted to Stanley Cavell’s work, elaborated, for example, in the writings of Veena Das. Ordinariness, in a Cavellian spirit, is a matter of affirming that the experience of the distance between the given and the possible is not an extraordinary one – it does not require a crisis, or a rupture, or some disruption of routine for this distance to be felt or apprehended. One reason that this affirmation is important, in relation to theories of subjectivity and subjectification, is that it throws into new relief the interpretation of contingency, whether of meaning or identity. The trick of being able to see all settled or inherited patterns of meaning as arbitrary (and interpreting arbitrariness as basically the same as ‘changeable’) easily leads to a scholastic temptation, as defined by Pierre Bourdieu, of projecting back onto practices under investigation the distance (social and analytical) that enables them to be objectified in the first place, and then transposing the revealed distance between the theoretical possibility of change and practical acceptance into a theory of power (i.e. power works by fixing and naturalising what are in fact fluid and contingent relations). Invoking Cavell, I would argue that this whole way of thinking misplaces “the vulnerability to doubt” that is one of his phrases for the ordinary, by failing to see that skepticism is a constant standing possibility of life, or, as I put it in the book, by not accepting the fact “that the world as we know it is not all that it may seem is an ever-present condition of action”.
Reflecting on all this as I have re-read my own book has made me think that there is actually a really interesting shift evident in the way in which change is figured in social theory over the last couple of decades (a shift that is really a line of important division, not a succession from one way of thinking to another). Explaining social change is, of course, a fairly basic concern of all sorts of social science, and usually involves some genre or another in which action is placed within a broader frame of context, or conditions, or constraint. Various traditions of thought, from the historicism of Weberian sociology to dialectically informed Marxism to theories of resilience, all tend to take it for granted that change is an intrinsic feature of social life – what’s a stake is how it is manifested. But with the ascendancy of subject-centred theories, under the sway of poststructuralist theories and the turn to ontology in particular, one can see the emergence of a different interpretation of change. In these strands of thought – whether it in theories of hegemony or of the distribution of the sensible or ontological politics or assemblage – it is presumed that the task of theory is to account for the stabilisation, ordering, or fixing of life into patterns of serial reproducibility. Change, in these accounts, is extraordinary – the objective is to establish theoretically the very possibility of change itself.
The difference here – between thinking of change as an ordinary feature of life that is manifested in various ways, or thinking of change as a rare event that interrupts orderly routines and stable patterns – seems to me now to be quite central to the contrast that I work through in The Priority of Injustice between action-oriented styles of social theory and subject-centric theories (which would include theories that remain fixated on demonstrating the illusory qualities of ‘the subject’). The latter traditions of thought are strongly attached to images of change as a punctual event – the echoes of classical ideas of revolution remain clear – that disrupts otherwise settled, more or less fixed habits. In the book, I suggest that this range of theory shares in an “unexamined idea of time: political time consists of a kind of punctuated equilibrium, where moments of dramatic and wholesale transformation of entire fields of action interrupt periods of durable and predictable routine.”
The set of relations between concepts of subjectivity-as-subjectification, ontologies of order, and images of change is in turn related to a remarkably resilient, shall we say, notion of the tasks of critique, understood primarily as a practice of denaturalization of apparently naturalized phenomenon – of demonstrating the theoretical possibility of the change-abilty of practices that are, apparently, lived and experienced as eternal and inevitable (the assumption that this is how life is ordinarily lived and experienced is, to reiterate, best thought of as a necessary projection of the methodological protocols derived from ontologized theories of subjectification).
The difference between action-oriented theories and subject-centric ones is partly related, in my discussion, to different attitudes to what Maeve Cooke calls “the justificatory dilemma” facing any avowedly critical theory, referring to the responsibility to justify that existing relationships both can and should be changed. To cut a long story short, subject-centric theories tend either to elide the problem of validity (justifying the vision of alternative futures that underwrites critique) into demonstrations of the plausibility of change, or, if more honest, they elevate openness to change and defamiliarization as the highest normative aspiration available to us (as the very essence of democracy, for example). The difference between these two styles of theory is the central narrative device in The Priority of Injustice – in particular, I use a simple contrast made by Axel Honneth to organize my discussion and evaluation of various strands of democratic theory. Honneth suggests that there are two broad paths out of what he calls the ‘productionist paradigm’ of critical theory (i.e. classical Marxism), in which substitutes for the lost faith in the universalizing agency of the industrial proletariat are found either in more pluralised accounts of rationalities of action (i.e. there’s more to life than labour), or in the search for deep ontological sources of the principle of negativity once invested in the working class (i.e. in antagonism, in abundance, lack, or even more perfectly, in the very gaps and fissures of ontological difference itself).
As you can probably tell, I am drawn towards the action-oriented strands of thought that Honneth points towards, and this informs my attempt to redeem something of value from the increasingly predictable literature on ‘the political’. If there is something distinctive that defines ‘the political’, then it’s not found in some irreducible force of antagonism, or in us/them relations, or in the ever present fact of violence. I commend Mary Dietz’s argument that what defines politics is an irreducible dimension of strategic action – this Machiavellian perspective helps us see that Foucault is the exemplary theorist of politics for our times, because Foucault is fascinated by strategic forms of action (that’s what Habermas and other similar thinkers haven’t liked about his work, and this dislike is what helps us see Foucault as first and foremost a theorist of action rather than ‘power’ -or, that what’s interesting about what he has to say about ‘power’ is the parts which are couched in the vocabulary of action). And all of this just means that rather than thinking of the distinction between politics and the political on the layer-cake analogy derived from political readings of Heidegger, it’s best thought of as directing our attention to the analysis of the different ratios between action and its conditions (that’s a reference to Kenneth Burke that I don’t make in The Priority of Injustice, but which I am thinking of developing properly in my next book).
Another thing to say about all of this is that the contrast between overly ontological readings of ‘the political’ and more ‘phenomenological’ versions that I prefer almost, but not quite exactly, maps directly onto the related contrast between realist/disassociative interpretations of the political and idealist/associative interpretations – my claim is that the significant choice is not between a grim and realist view of politics versus a rosier, more collective view; it’s between more social-theoretical traditions of action theory versus more culturalist-philosophical styles of subject-centric thought.
This argument about concepts of action and the subject is important because it goes to the central issue of how to understand democracy as a mode of the sharing of rule. There are different images of ‘sharing’ available to us, after all – it can be understood in terms of the singular will of all, or on the model of naturalistic consensus found in anarchism, or of being duped into acceding to rule by identifying with available distributions of the seeable and sayable, or, if you prefer, in terms of being bound to respect decisions to which one was at least in some respect a party. Subject-centric views of political life tend to rely on rather wooly ideas about consensus – consensus tends to be used to refer to any and all occasions in which action can be shown to accord to or attune with various background conditions, so that it isn’t even the name for a process of agreement. The relevant value in democratic theory isn’t really consensus anyway (not even in old uncle Habermas), it’s consent, which isn’t the same thing – consent has to be sought or won, and is almost certainly always grudging anyway, but the importance of holding this contrast open – between straw-figures of consensus and ideas of consent – is that it roots us back towards the importance of analysing the relations between ‘the politics of power’ and ‘the politics of support’ (I discuss all of that in Chapter 4 of the book, The Scandal of Consent, in which the dividing line between action-oriented theories and subject-centric theories is located within broadly poststructuralist strands of thought, so that Stuart Hall and Partha Chatterjee are shown to be much better guides to the dynamics of democratic politics than Laclau and Mouffe or Ranciere).
There is a geographical dimension to this strand of my argument too, in case you were wondering. A chain of associations derived from the subject-centric strand of thought has come to define a veritable paradigm of spatial politics in human geography, urban studies, and related fields:
- the image of political time that contrasts images of settlement and order with moments of interruption and rupture lends itself to a view of proper politics as best exemplified by dramatic disruptions in and of public space;
- it underwrites the view that proper politics inhabits margins and fissures, offset against mainstreams and the status quo;
- it is closely associated, as we have seen, with a view of critique as a process of defamiliarization;
- and it supports and is supported by understandings of how people’s subjectivities are functional effects of mediated systems of malevolent power.
Here then, the long shadow of Althusser’s notion of interpellation is still evident – it is the master-metaphor that one so often still finds governing the political interpretation of all sorts of other theory or theorists, all the way from Foucault to psychoanalysis and various points between. This combination of associations finds expression in an explicitly spatial model of politics as changing-the-subject:
- subjects are formed, in this paradigm, by being ‘enframed’, by being set-in-place (before a painting, a chain of signifiers, a field of perception, a structure of address, or just immersed in an atmosphere);
- throw in an orthodox interpretation of the relational formation of subjectivity, in which any collective identity as ‘We’ is constitutively posited against an abjected ‘Them’ (an interpretation of favoured sources that is just wrong), so that subject-formation appears as form of exclusionary territorialization;
- and you arrive at a framework for analysing any and all practices as scenes for the reproduction of various exclusions and/or always potential sites for the creative reconfiguration of the imaginary identifications before which people remain, in the last instance (as they say), necessarily enthralled.
That, then, is what I am trying to work through, particularly in Part 2 of The Priority of Injustice, although these themes run across the whole thing. As I say, the contrast between action-oriented and subject-centric theories, which you may or may not find too stylized for your own tastes, captures for me something important that allows me to differentiate between strands of thought often bundled together in discussions of poststructuralism, or Continental philosophy, or political ontology – basically, I use this distinction to peel off various thinkers from that broad grouping, and draw them closer to strands of thought working a Habermasian vein with which they are normally not be associated. But I’ll say a little more about that re-arrangement next time.
I found myself reading a couple of somewhat contrasting books about African cities this week, both bought last weekend in a secondhand bookshop in Topsham. One of them, John Western’s Outcast Cape Town, from 1981, is one of those books that I should probably have read before and should probably not admit publicly to not having done so (it’s been formally canonised as a ‘classic’, after all; but geographers, and urban theorists too, have funny ideas about ‘canons’, I often think – there has been a serious debate in Geography about whether one could define a canon of core texts for the discipline, a debate that seems to involve naming texts as canonical that are not actually required reading at all for active researchers, and that barely anyone actually reads apart from the people writing histories of geography who insist that surely everyone else should do.
The other book I have been reading is The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland, by Thomas Bent, originally published in 1892, a classic of its own genre too, and a book that could be described as an example of ‘inhuman geography’ in contrast to Western’s exemplary model of humanistic geography. I guess I would probably not have bought this book on any other weekend than this last one, as Zimbabwe waited for the end of Robert Mugabe’s rule. It’s an account of Bent’s expedition to investigate the site of Great Zimbabwe, the medieval city once reputed to have been the home of the Queen of Sheba and one of the most politicised archeological sites in the world. Bent’s book helped set the terms for debate about ‘the mystery’ of the origins of Zimbabwe, a discourse that extends through the colonial period, UDI, and post-independence Zimbabwe.
Bent’s expedition took place in 1891, an integral part of that moment in which the British South Africa Company, who facilitated the expedition, orchestrated the appropriation of ‘Rhodesia’ as a means of securing access to gold and other minerals meant to support the Cape-to-Cairo dream of Cecil Rhodes (the trip was, of course, also supported by the Royal Geographical Society). I read lots of mid-nineteenth-century colonial scientific-travel writing when I was a graduate student, writing a thesis about the rhetorical dispossession of African people in European discourses about Africa, and Bent’s book shares many of the same features as that earlier work, but by his time the dispossession and subordination involved not just rhetorical and the violence not just epistemological. The book is in three parts, and Part 1 and 3 are a narrative of his travels to the ruins through ‘savage Africa’ – of “how we got to them and how we got away”. This sort of descriptive genre is partly to do with establishing the fact of the intrepid white scientist actually having ‘been there’, a fact upon which the reported findings and theories presented in the middle section depend for their authority as ‘science’; it’s also to do, in this case, with an explicit surveying exercise to establish the best routes for railways and roads into the interior to open up exploitation of mineral wealth. The book’s narrative structure turns on the sleigh-of-hand whereby the presence of Africans is described in all sorts of ways – as translators, interpreters, hosts, labourers – but in such a way that they are rendered as having no significant attachment to the places they inhabit. And it also reiterates the recurring theme of Africanist discourse, in which a scholarly Orientalist appreciation of ‘Semite’ cultures of the Mediterranean or Middle East are used as reference points to theorise about the meanings of African landscapes in such a way that they are rendered as a ‘blank darkness‘, as Christopher Miller once put it.
The interesting, and infamous, part of Bent’s book is the middle section, in which he reports on his analysis of the buildings and artefacts at Zimbabwe. It’s an example of pure theory, but in the worst possible sense. Bent engages in an elaborate exercise in comparative reasoning to insist that all the evidence at the site confirms that whoever was responsible for building these now ruined settlements – which stood as undeniable evidence of a history of ‘civilisation’ here in ‘savage Africa’ – it couldn’t possibly have been the ancestors of the people actually living there now. Bent had a Theory. The ruins must have been built by an “ancient race” related to Arabs or Phoenicians (i.e. the origins of the site lay beyond black Africa). He proves this by finding analogies between the design of carved birds and gold ingots at Zimbabwe with those found somewhere els – in Egypt, for example (and including examples that he had examined down here in Devon). By this flimsy mode of inference, Bent establishes “a northern origin for the people” who built this whole extensive complex – “a race akin to the Phoenicians and the Egyptian”. All the evidence, he argued, confirms that “the builders were of a Semitic race and of Arabian origin, and quite excludes the possibility of any negroid race having had more to with their construction than as the saves of a race of higher cultivation; for it is a well-accepted fact that the negroid brain never could be capable of taking the initiative in work of such intricate nature”. Those words were written in 1894, in the Preface to the 3rd edition of what was quite a popular book – that is, slap bang between the initial incursion by ‘Pioneers’ in 1890 and the formal granting of rule over Rhodesia to Rhodes’s Company in 1899. As I said, this is politicised archaeology (and geography).
I should admit that for me the real attraction, if that’s the right way of putting it, of this book is the fact that the edition that I bought was a republication, from 1969, produced by the Books of Rhodesia company as part of the Rhodesiana Reprint Library series, started in 1968. I have an odd fascination with that moment of Rhodesian history, despite not knowing enough about it. This book, the one I bought, was produced as an instrument in the formation of a post-UDI nationalist historical narrative of white settler identity just as the second Chimurenga – or, for the implied reader of the book, ‘the Bush war’ – was making itself felt. The reprint of Bent’s book is dedicated “to honour the men and women who pioneered Rhodesia, and to promote a wider interest in the country’s history”. The single page para-text contextualising Bent’s original narrative – written, remember, in 1969 – admits that Bent’s hypothesis about the Phoenician origins of Zimbabwe had been rapidly discredited, “but this does not detract from the value of his observations which are still very useful”, it says. Without the analogies and unsupportable inferences, all that actually left in Bent’s text is what even for it’s time is some rather crude racism and an unapologetic justification of colonial appropriation, complete with complaints that an Englishman isn’t allowed to treat ‘natives’ (that’s not the N-word he actually uses) in quite the same slave-like manner as do the Portuguese. Needless to say, the Rhodesiana Reprint series didn’t ever publish the work of the archaeologists who challenged Bent’s theory and thereby established the grounds for subsequent ‘indigenist’ accounts of the origins of Great Zimbabwe.
My copy of The Lost Cities of Mashonaland is, then, a doubly-violent artefact: the text is a transparently wilful effort at contributing to the much more than figurative dispossession and subordination of African people; and the book was reproduced 70-odd years later as part of a project of racist nation-building around an identity that had little else to cling to than various militaristic associations.
By contrast, John Western’s book is marked by an evident “concern and compassion” for those who suffered from the injustices of apartheid – those are the words used in a short book notice by Cyprian Thorpe, a typed carbon copy of which was folded inside the copy which I bought the other day. Western’s book is an example of what was once called humanistic geography, a tradition that I must admit I had often found both a little too self-righteous in its claims to be in touch with the genuinely ‘human’ and also oddly universalising in it invocations of the passionate, embodied qualities of life. Western proposes that this approach “implies looking at the city through the texture of the lives of its inhabitants”, and in this case the value of this commitment is well borne out. My received understanding of Western’s book was as an exemplar of ethnographic research in a geographical register, but while it’s certainly rooted in his own immersive experience of Cape Town in the 1970s, it isn’t really written as an ethnography – it is a piece of conventional qualitative social science, combining descriptive mapping, quantitative data (but not statistical analysis) and reports from qualitative interviews; even for its time, it’s rather light on social theory, too, to be honest. Whereas David Smith, in his work on South Africa in the 1970s, made use of spatial analysis to work through the relevance of Rawlsian ideas of justice, Western maps the very tangible ‘geography of disadvantage’ as described by people forcibly relocated by the Group Areas Act, involving diminished access to health services, work, places of worship, friends and family, sport and the movies. In his account of the ‘subjective’ dimensions of the experience of Coloured residents moved from Mowbray to the Cape Flats, he also provides what now reads as a rather prescient account of the intangible harms of apartheid spatial practices as lying in a generalised sense of fear and insecurity. And while Outcast Cape Town is primarily a reconstruction of the effects of the Group Areas Act from the 1950s to the 1970s, it is also framed, published as it was at the start of the 1980s, by a profound sense of impending change – it resonates with the sense of waiting (Coetzee) or of living in the interregnum (Gordimer) which was a central feature of South African literary writing at that same time.
Outcast Cape Town makes a simple and succinct case for the importance of thinking of space and social relations as mutually related – or, in Western’s terms, of the importance of ‘the dialectic of person and place’. My favourite bit, which I will re-use I hope, is the really neat formula he provides for thinking about the idea of “knowing one’s place”, in which Western distinguishes between a submissive sense of this phrase as being kept in a subordinate station, a sense of knowing one’s geographical situation, and a third, synthetic sense of knowing one’s place as “an appreciation of its possibilities, to know its potential creativity for social action”.
In my defence for not having read this book before now (but why am I being defensive – not having read this book has not really damaged my learning up to this point), I should say that Western’s book now makes a lot more sense to me than it would have done even a couple of year’s ago, because of the time I have now spent in Cape Town on three or four occasions. I have a better sense than I would have had before of the current geography of the city, and so Outcast Cape Town now reads to me like an archaeology of the legacy of apartheid urban development.
Western’s book is oriented by a moral imperative to demonstrate, empirically, the injustices of apartheid, and in this respect it stands apart from a tradition of more explicitly politicised and partisan urban analysis in and about South African cities that flourished in the 1980s. In a review of Outcast Cape Town from 1984, Alan Mabin pointed out that the book is more concerned with establishing the importance of ‘the sense of place’ rather than analysing the ‘political responses’ to apartheid emerging from those communities discussed in the book. Mabin ended his review wondering “whether ‘humanistic geography’ can contribute to the explanation of why things are as they are; and whether it can hope in any form to contribute to ending the ‘distress’, ‘disadvantage’ and ‘fear’ upon which Western touches — not to mention the poverty, racism and sexism which is the texture of life for so many in Cape Town — or anywhere else.” The skepticism behind that question expresses very clearly the imperatives that reconfigured South African urban studies in the 1980s, reflecting the concerns that provoked the development of a much more self-confidently theoretical approach to urban analysis, drawing on Marxist theories, theories of the state, social movement theories. On the other hand, Western’s book does stand in a tradition that continued through the 1980s and 1990s that focussed on ordinary experiences of life in South Africa which were both intensely political in their causes and consequences but felt in much more personal ways.
And this sense of disagreement provides the moral of my blog-story for the week. Bent’s grubby little book epitomizes a style of thought that supposes that ideas are somehow tied to their authentic origins, and so it closes down and restricts discussion and debate. Western’s book not only acknowledges the validity and value of the voices and experiences of a variety of African voices, but more than that, it stands as one reference point within a wider tradition of urban thought in which South African cities, in this case, have been and continue to be treated as scenes for debates and arguments not just about the applicability of concepts and theories and methods to this place but also about their more general relevance beyond that particular place. And that, perhaps – working through as a problem the relationship between application and generalisation – is as good an understanding of what a post/de-colonial urban studies would look like as I can think of.
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.
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.