The publication of my new book, The Priority of Injustice, gets a little closer, a little more real, with the mock-up of the front cover. It’s quite nice, I think. The image is by an artist called Helen Burgess. The book itself is due out later this year, published by the University of Georgia Press, sometime in the Autumn/Fall.
One of the recurring features of academic life is the way in which particular intellectual traditions of thought are associated with particular places, as in multiple Chicago Schools, for example, but also in the way in which particular places come to stand as vectors for general theoretical claims – Paris and modernism, obviously, but more prosaically, certain places, like Baltimore or Vancouver or Columbus, Ohio, come to serve as the empirical reference points for the working through of theoretical ideas about capitalist urbanization, neoliberalism, governance and scale, and the like (this is not quite the same, but not unrelated either, to the ways in which towns and cities are presented as sites for experimentation).
When I was an undergraduate and postgraduate, the so-called ‘locality debates‘ were the focus of much of the most interesting discussion of the relations between social theory and spatiality. The very question of how to think about the relation between places, on the one hand, and knowledge of general trends, on the other, was at the centre of these debates. A whole set of issues – the relations between the abstract and the concrete, the empirical and the theoretical, the nature of case analysis, the relations between different axes of social differentiation, questions of ‘scale’ – were worked through in these debates. In the early 1990s, they ended up being supplanted by debates about ‘postmodernism’, which had all the appearance of intellectual pluralism and philosophical weight, but were often rather simplistic by comparison.
Swindon has a small part to play in this lineage of spatial theory in the social sciences. Of course, since 1988 a lot of social science has been commissioned, managed, and audited in Swindon, under the auspices of the ESRC most obviously, and more recently the AHRC and EPSRC too – including a succession of urban-oriented research programmes (Ian Gordon has analysed four decades of urban research programmes in the UK from the 1960s onwards, and it would be interesting to update this in light of more recent initiatives around Urban Transformations, Connected Communities, Urban Living Partnerships, the GCRF and the like). But as an object of urban and/or place-based social science research, Swindon also has a minor claim to significance. I mentioned in my last post Mike Savage’s account of the way in which post-1945 British social science evolved through a distinctive form of effacement of place, typified by the affluent worker studies which were not-necessarily-famously undertaken in Luton but were emphatically not studies of Luton. Swindon doesn’t merit a mention in Savage’s reconstruction of a ‘landscaped’ conception of social inquiry. But Swindon’s status as an object of social science illustrates some of the different ways in which specific places come to play a synecdochical role of one form or other in shaping images of the social.
Michael Harloe’s Town in Transition, published in 1975, is the most important contribution of ‘Swindon Studies’ to urban theory more generally, I think it’s fair to say. Harloe had worked for the Borough during the town’s expansion in the late 1960s, and the book was one product of the Centre for Environmental Studies, the think tank that served an important medium for spatial thinking in the 1960s and 1970s whose alumni included Doreen Massey (somebody should really be writing a geneaology of the institutional worlds that generated spatial thought in this period). Harloe’s book is a fantastic account of the politics of post-war planning, where politics is understood as a matter of compromising, lobbying, building alliances, strategising across scales. Intellectually, the book stands at the cusp of the theoretical transformation of urban studies in the 1970s (not least through the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, of which Harloe was a founding editor in 1977) – there is not much trace of the sorts of Marxist political economy or state theory in it, but that’s OK, it has weathered well precisely because of its resolutely organisational and strategic sense of the political.
By the 1980s, Swindon had become one of the places used to make sense of the reconfiguration of cities and regions, centres and peripheries, that was a central focus of intellectual debate in the so-called ‘spatialization’ of social science that was inaugurated by the theoretical transformations that are not yet evident in Town in Transition (it is of course slap-bang in the middle of the then much-talked about high-tech, ‘sunbelt’ ‘M4 Corridor’). Swindon was the site for one of the locality studies funded under the ESRC’s Changing Urban and Regional System initiative (which was originally conceived and proposed by Doreen Massey). In this guise, it was made into the test-case for assessing whether theories of “growth coalitions“, originally developed in the context of North American urban politics and policy, could be usefully applied in the UK (the answer was ‘sort of’, in so far as Swindon might once have had something like a stable, consensual civic coalition promoting expansion and diversification through to the 1980s, but then it didn’t). Then, in 1997, Swindon was presented as the very epitome of ‘the city for twenty-first century‘, in a book that gathers together and synthesises the findings of a succession of ESRC projects on the town and the region of which it is part (the 20ish year gap between the Harloe book and the Boddy et al book in 1997 suggests that the next book-length academic study of Swindon is due to be written just about now….). More interestingly, perhaps, Phil Pinch used Swindon as one model of ‘ordinary places‘ (the other one was Reading), places that presented challenges to the tendency of radical political theory to take rather special places as the models for general claims about political possibilities. More recently, Sophie Bowlby chose Swindon as the site for her research on the changing nature of women’s friendship networks across the lifecourse because of its typicality (she told me that when I bumped into on a train from Paddington, as you do). And in the research of Linda McDowell and her colleagues on the intersections of class, ethnicity, masculinity and labour market dynamics in the UK, Swindon again functions as an interestingly ordinary place (compared to Luton, these days), one which they use, amongst other things, to complicate narratives of politics and anti-politics.
It should also be said that all of these examples of social science research on Swindon are pursued by academics based in other places – in places like Reading, Oxford, or Bristol, University towns all of them, of different sorts. Swindon still struggles to build any significant higher education presence of its own (it’s surpassed by Luton in that respect). But perhaps this has something to do with why Swindon gets to be the place where you can learn about the value of ordinary things.
In fact, when you take the trouble to look at the social science about Swindon, you begin to see that it might have a small claim to be the exemplary ordinary place, if such a thing makes sense. But you can also see Swindon as an example of the different ways in which places are figured in social science (of the different forms of ‘geographical reasoning’ to which life-in-places is subjected) – sometimes the town is seen as representative of wider trends and patterns (in this sense, Swindon gets to be what Luton was for social science in the 1960s), even “a starkly exaggerated example” of national trends; sometimes it is framed in comparison with, or even counterpoint to other places (this is how Harloe presents the lessons of the ‘local’ and ‘national’ politics of Swindon’s growth); sometimes as the focus of forms of conjunctural analysis (as in the locality studies research). These don’t quite exhaust the ways in place and/or the local get framed in social analysis, but they do cover three important versions – if you had the time and inclination, you could even imagine writing a piece in which “Swindon Studies’ gets to enact the different conceptual operations through which geographical specificity is translated into theoretical generality. Mind you, I’m not saying ‘It all comes together in Swindon’. It doesn’t (in fact, in more ways than one, a lot of ‘it’ just passes by).
Newly published in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics – Political Street Art: Communication, Culture and Resistance in Latin America, by Holly Eva Ryan:
“Recent global events, including the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, Occupy movements and anti-austerity protests across Europe have renewed scholarly and public interest in collective action, protest strategies and activist subcultures. We know that social movements do not just contest and politicise culture, they create it too. However, scholars working within international politics and social movement studies have been relatively inattentive to the manifold political mediations of graffiti, muralism, street performance and other street art forms.
Against this backdrop, this book explores the evolving political role of street art in Latin America during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It examines the use, appropriation and reconfiguration of public spaces and political opportunities through street art forms, drawing on empirical work undertaken in Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina. Bringing together a range of insights from social movement studies, aesthetics and anthropology, the book highlights some of the difficulties in theorising and understanding the complex interplay between art and political practice. It seeks to explore ‘what art can do’ in protest, and in so doing, aims to provide a useful point of reference for students and scholars interested in political communication, culture and resistance.”
Newly published in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics – Psychological Governance and Public Policy: Governing the mind, brain and behaviour, edited by Jessica Pykett, Rhys Jones and Mark Whitehead:
“There have been significant developments in the state of psychological, neuroscientific and behavioural scientific knowledge relating to the human mind, brain, action and decision-making over the past two decades. These developments have influenced public policy making and popular culture in the UK and elsewhere – through policies and emerging social practices focussed on behavioural change, happiness, wellbeing, therapy, resilience and character. Yet little attention has been paid to examining the wider political and ethical significance of the widespread use of psychological governance techniques. There is a pressing and recognised need to address the behaviour change agenda in relation to how our cultural ideas about the brain, mind, behaviour and self are changing.
This book provides a critical account of existing forms of psychological governance in relation to public policy. It asks whether we can speak of a co-ordinated and novel shift in governance or, rather, whether these trends are more simply pragmatic policy tools based on advances in scientific evidence. With contributions from leading scholars across the social sciences from the UK, the USA and Canada, chapters identify practical, political and research challenges posed by the current policy enthusiasm for particular branches of affective neuroscience, behavioural economics, positive psychology and happiness economics. The core focus of this book is to investigate the ways in which knowledge about the mind, brain and behaviour has informed the methods and techniques of governance and to explore the implications of this for shaping citizen identity and social practice.”
Newly published in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics – Popular Geopolitics and Nation Branding in the Post-Soviet Realm, by Robert A. Saunders:
“This seminal book explores the complex relationship between popular geopolitics and nation branding among the Newly Independent States of Eurasia, and their combined role in shaping contemporary national image and statecraft within and beyond the region. It provides critical perspectives on international relations, nationalism, and national identity through the use of innovative approaches focusing on popular culture, new media, public diplomacy, and alternative “narrators” of the nation. By positing popular geopolitics and nation branding as contentious forces and complementary flows, the study explores the tensions and elisions between national self-image and external perceptions of the nation, and how this complex interplay has become integral to contemporary global affairs.”
“This book offers a unique contribution, exploring how the intersections among migrants and radical squatter’s movements have evolved over past decades. The complexity and importance of squatting practices are analyzed from a bottom-up perspective, to demonstrate how the spaces of squatting can be transformed by migrants. With contributions from scholars, scholar-activists, and activists, this book provides unique insights into how squatting has offered an alternative to dominant anti-immigrant policies, and the implications of squatting on the social acceptance of migrants. It illustrates the different mechanisms of protest followed in solidarity by migrant squatters and Social Center activists, when discrimination comes from above or below, and explores how can different spatialities be conceived and realized by radical practices.
Contributions adopt a variety of perspectives, from critical human geography, social movement studies, political sociology, urban anthropology, autonomous Marxism, feminism, open localism, anarchism and post-structuralism, to analyze and contextualize migrants and squatters’ exclusion and social justice issues. This book is a timely and original contribution through its exploration of migrations, squatting and radical autonomy.”
Even more things to read at the start of the year! There is a flurry of new titles for 2017 now available in the Research in Place, Space and Politics Series published by Routledge – all sorts of things, from the interface between architectural theory and social science theories of space, to governing people’s brains, popular geopolitics in the post-Soviet world, political street are in Latin American to the radical potentials of squatting movements all over the place. I’m going to post separately for each of the new titles. If I may say so myself, the Series is developing as a nice window into the inter/multi/post-disciplinary scope of conversations focussed on issues of ‘space’, ‘place’, ‘spatiality’, ‘territory’ and the like. And there are more titles to come soon.
If you are interested in publishing in the Series, here is further information about submitting proposals to the Series.
More recommended reading for the New Year, this time a critical reflection on the potential implications of the translation of the ‘urban SDG‘ (Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals) into UN-Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda, by my Exeter colleague Federico Caprotti and 8 co-authors (I think it is in the nature of this whole field of global-level urban policy innovation that making sense of things means collaborating with plenty of others). It is published in Urban Research and Practice.
Here is the abstract:
“The UN-HABITAT III conference held in Quito in late 2016 enshrined the first Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) with an exclusively urban focus. SDG 11, as it became known, aims to make cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable through a range of metrics, indicators, and evaluation systems. It also became part of a post-Quito ‘New Urban Agenda’ that is still taking shape. This paper raises questions around the potential for reductionism in this new agenda, and argues for the reflexive need to be aware of the types of urban space that are potentially sidelined by the new trends in global urban policy.”
Following up on previous posts recommending the work of Linda Zerilli, I see that her new book is now out. A Democratic Theory of Judgment collects and synthesises and augments themes from her recent writings, including a sustained critical engagement in critical debates about affect in political theory (a critique that takes my own engagement with nonrepresentational ontologies seriously, in a critical way, alongside the arguments of Ruth Leys, which is flattering). But there is much more than that going on in the book it addresses what I would argue is a resolutely geographical problem of making critical judgments in new situations where inherited criteria don’t work (or, perhaps, where inherited understandings of how criteria work don’t work). My own attempt to elaborate on this problem, in my book, The Priority of Injustice, out sometime this year, owes a very great deal to what I have learned from reading Zerilli’s work, going back to her fantastic critique of skeptical residues in feminist cultural theory.
Election results are wonderful things for generating piles of interpretation, since they are so informationally thin (they only tell you how many people voted for each candidate in particular places, not why, or who they were, or anything else). Where would social science be without the secret ballot? But election results do provide just enough information to set-off all sorts of inferential flights of fancy, supported by waves of supplementary polling and survey evidence of different sorts. This might be one of the more important things that elections do for democratic politics – they generate deliberation after the fact, if not so much before! Getting your interpretation to stick is itself a political strategy, of course. The meaning of election results is nothing if not theoretically-overdetermined, one might say – give someone an election result, and they can use it to confirm their own favourite theory of what is going on in the world just now. It is even possible, for example, for some people to interpret Donald Trump’s election victory, secured quite legitimately by winning fewer votes than his opponent, but winning those votes in the right places, as “an unmistakeable rejection of a political establishment and an economic system that simply isn’t working for most people.” Never mind.
Anyway, on occasions like these, I tend to find myself thinking that I should either re-read, finish, or read for the first time certain things that I have kicking around the house, things like this:
Hannah Arendt, ‘Truth and Politics’, in Between Past and Future.
Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times.
Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Why Americans Don’t Vote.
Jan-Werner Muller, ‘Real Citizens‘, Boston Review.
Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts.
Nick Clarke, Will Jennings, Jonathan Moss, Gerry Stoker, ‘Anti-politics and the Left’, Renewal, 24, (2).
David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory.