Ron Johnston

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

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

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

The Works

There are loads of ‘Things to read while in lockdown’ lists circulating right now, and even though it’s not a holiday, I am certainly finding myself spending more time at least thinking about what to read to pass the time. I am missing being able to browse in bookshops, even in the rather limited range available in downtown Exeter. I especially miss popping into a random charity shop in the dim expectation of finding something I didn’t think I wanted to read, buying it for £1, taking it home, and never reading it.

Being denied any access to these small pleasures reminds me of one of the abiding experiences of what it was like to have once lived in Swindon. For me, one important aspect of this experience was defined by the fact that Swindon is NOT a University town. I grew up in a place (East Grinstead) that was a lot more metropolitan than the small village which I might otherwise have grown up in (Fairford, from which one visited Swindon to do proper shopping and watch football), but which was still just a dull dormitory town (“sclerotically reactionary” is how Paul Theroux once described East Grinstead). Then I lived in various places (Cambridge and Bristol, Oxford and Reading, Salford and Columbus) which were all identifiably University towns, in their very different more-or-less provincial ways. I spent time in places like Atlanta and Durban, when both places still had bookshops. Living in Swindon was a strange return to a never-quite-experienced, what-might-have-been land that never-really-was.

All of which is just a prelude to an excuse for another list, this time a tribute to The Works, the cut-prize books/stationary-tat store that, alongside a perfectly decent Waterstones, served as my primary go-to book-haunt for eight years. If you are familiar with The Works, you will appreciate just what it means that this was the second best bookstore in town. The fact that it is located in Swindon’s best known attraction, the outlet retail centre, cherished by railway buffs and historical geography nerds from far and wide, is even better – it’s a pun: The Works, located on the site of the old GWR/BR railways works).

I’d like to say that I came across some hidden gems in The Works. But that’s not quite true. These are the top five books I picked up there which I would almost certainly never otherwise have read AND which I do not regret spending £2 to £4 on….

1). Michael Chabon’s Manhood for Amateurs, a lovely collection of essays, including a fantastic piece on why Lego minifigures represent a terrible constriction of the imagination, an argument I liked when I first read it and that has become more relevant to me now that, in lockdown, I find myself discovering the limits of my own design imagination while trying to make good use of a Lego Architecture Studio set.

2). Paul Morley’s book on Bowie, one of those books which one would have felt obliged to read at some point without really wanting to, so getting a remaindered copy felt right.

3). A bluffers’ guide to the Plantagenets, because I was trying to make sense of Richard II and thought it would be good, when reading Shakespeare, to know something about Kings and Queens, without needing to make this an academic project.

4). A collection of John Betjemann’s poems, which I bought for no other reason than the fact that it included a poem about the bells ringing at Christchurch in Swindon’s Old Town. No other reason.

5). Michael Bilton’s Wicked Beyond Belief, one of the huge range of true crime books you can always pick up at The Works, not a genre I am generally inclined towards. It’s a book about the culture of policing in the 1970s, deeply disturbing, I’m not quite sure why I bought it, other than always remembering the effect on me of reading Joan Smith’s account of the Yorkshire Ripper case in Misogynies way back in 1989.

Now I live in a University town in Devon, half the size of Swindon. Better bookshops. I still check out The Works now and then. I look forward to being able to do so again one day soonish, and to finding something else to read that I probably shouldn’t admit to enjoying.

10 Things I Miss About Commuting

Since moving from Swindon to Exeter at the end of August, I have filled the car up with petrol only 4 times – rather than the at least three times a week I was used to. That must be good. I am finding it a bit odd to find myself living in the same place as I work in, and I am trying my best to stop thinking it’s really exciting to be able to go into the office at the weekend. I am adjusting to the novel possibility of bumping into one’s colleagues in the supermarket (and of having to dodge one’s students while there too). I am spending more time working in my office, but I also find it difficult to work in silence, and I am aware that you can’t really sit in your office at work with the door open playing Bremen Nacht cranked up to 11 (not, I guess, without upsetting everyone else along the corridor), so I am refining my music tastes, learning to listen softly to Thelonius Monk or Glenn Gould (that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of both jazz and classical music).

Amongst these new experiences of a more sedentary lifestyle, there are some things I am finding myself missing about my 2+-hour home-work and 2+hour work-home roundtrips. Mainly, I miss the people who used to accompany me to and from work during the working week:

1). I miss Karina Longworth, who’s You Must Remember This is just the best podcast ever.

2). I miss Courtney Barnett, and Taylor Swift, and Lucinda Williams, and Britt Daniels and all sorts of other people too, who one got to know by listening to whole albums in the car, all the way through from start to finish, as well as those friends one is more ambivalent about but who you only see once a year or so, like Supertramp or Psychedelic Furs, and who are good to listen to every so often, surely.

3). I miss Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz and the anguished liberalism of Slate’s Political Gabfest.

4). I miss the surprise of meeting old friends, depending on which playlist you happen to choose to put on as you speed down the motorway – could be Tangerine Kitty or Beyoncé or Kristin Hersh.

5). I miss David Remnick and The New Yorker’s Radio Hour.

6). I miss Eddie Mair and others on Radio 4’s PM programme.

7). I miss David Runciman and the Talking Politics podcast.

8). I miss Alec Baldwin and his friends.

9). I miss Adam Buxton (but not as much as I miss Adam and Joe on the radio).

10). And I miss those rare occasions when someone would be there with me in my car reading their own books out loud just to me – Barack Obama reading Dreams of my Father, Donna Tartt reading The Little Friend, and, back in the days of OU-audio on cassettes, Quentin Skinner explaining early modern political thought to me, just to me.  

 

 

The Priority of Injustice

So, finally, the book that I have been writing, on and off, for the last four years, The Priority of Injustice, has been published.  It arrived earlier this week – a rather hectic week, which has oddly meant I have been too busy to experience the strange sense of anti-climax that often accompanies the arrival of the finished form of something that you have been making for so long.

This is, in one sense, my Exeter book – the first thing I did in my very first week here, four years ago, was write the proposal and send it off to prospective publishers, It’s also, though, my Swindon book, a book which attempts to articulate an approach to theorising in an ordinary spirit which has been published just a few weeks after moving away from that very ordinary town where I have lived while writing it.

It’s a beautiful object, with a great cover image, by Helen Burgess (I bought one of her pictures once, in one of those open-house art trail events that you get in places like Bishopston in Bristol, so that’s why I knew of her work; it turns out she is part of a geography-friendly network of artists). And I am honoured and humbled to have the book published in University Georgia Press’s very excellent Geographies of Justice and Social Transformation series.

I’m now faced with the challenge of promoting the book. I’m quite fond of the Coetzee-esque principle that books should have to make their own way in the world without the help of the author; on the other hand, I have some sense of responsibility towards the argument made in the book, a responsibility to help project it into the world. I’ve already realised that it’s not the sort of book that lends itself to an easy press release – ‘THEORY COULD BE THEORISED DIFFERENTLY’, SAYS THEORY-BOY doesn’t really work as a headline, does it?.

The book doesn’t even have any empirical case studies in it, upon which to hang a more popular pitch. It doesn’t really have much more than passing references to some real-world examples. In this respect, I might have broken one of the cardinal rules of writing in GeographyLand. But the book is about the different forms of theoreticism that one finds in contemporary political thought, where that refers to the ways in which  appeal to preconstructed examples is used to confirm ready-made philosophical perspectives. So, as a matter of principle, I couldn’t very well reproduce that same gesture myself.

I realise that this might sound defensive, although in this respect I’m in good company. Kant, in the Preface to The Critique of Pure Reason, starts by apologising for not having any examples or illustrations, which he knows would have helped the reader along (if you live and work among geographers, his discussion is actually very funny – it indicates that Kant really was a proper geographer, haunted by the same anxieties about ‘real world examples’ that we have drummed into us all the time!). I am going to resist the temptation to lay claim to his defence that “many a book would have been clearer if it had not made such an effort to be clear”. I am inclined instead to appeal to another grand Theory Master, Talcott Parsons (great name) – Parsons, in his 1968 Introduction to a new edition of The Structure of Social Action, also responds to the accusation that his work was all theory and no empirics – his book, he asserted, was “an empirical study in the analysis of social thought”, which treats the writings of various thinkers as “documents” that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. Had I read that before I finished my own book, I would have used it, but I didn’t, but I am certainly going to use it a lot from now on. It’s pretty much exactly how I conceive what I am doing in The Priority of Injustice. This is not, mind, merely a matter of exegesis – it’s more like something described by Yi-Fu Tuan, in another preface (I do read past the first few pages of some books), to his Dominance and Affection. He describes his book as an essay, a preliminary undertaking that imaginatively lays out ideas, as a first step towards the focus on specific problems and their analysis. I see my book as doing a bit of what both Parsons and Tuan recommend, with only touch of the apologetic anxiety expressed by Kant.

I should have a go, shouldn’t I, at saying out loud what this very long book is actually about, what it actually argues (it does have a fantastic index!). There is a promotional jacket blurb, which does a quite good job of doing that, but let me try to give a little more substance.

The first thing to say is that this an argumentative book – it’s an argument for a certain way of thinking and theorising, and against certain other ways. The ways of thinking that I argue against can be variously characterised, for sure, but I have come to think of them a constituting a fairly coherent discourse, shall we say, that defines being in the true of avowedly ‘poststructuralist’ critical thought. That name might not quite capture the field, exactly, but what I have in mind is an intellectual world defined by two core features: a recurrent fixation on the dynamics of subjectification; and a tendency towards what I have called ontological trumping, expressed most clearly in the convergence of critical spatial theory with assertive ontologies of the political. Take those two features, splice them together, and you have entered into the unreflexive common sense of what it means to perform critique in contemporary TheoryLand.

The Priority of Injustice is, primarily, a book about democratic theory, which isn’t just any old body of theory, but it’s also a book about the vocation of critical theory more broadly. It’s also in part a book in which I try to pay homage to the thinkers who have really influenced my own intellectual trajectory: thinkers including Stanley Cavell and Judith Shklar, Iris Marion Young and Amartya Sen, Linda Zerilli and Stuart Hall, Albert Hirschman and Partha Chatterjee, Nancy Fraser and Hannah Pitkin, Axel Honneth and Bernard Williams, Phillip Pettit and Cora Diamond. As well as old uncle Habermas, of course. Somewhere in that list there is, I think, the outlines of an account of the rapprochement between post-analytical political philosophy and critical theory of a big C and big T, post-Frankfurt School style (that might be the subject of the next book). It’s in the relationship between those two traditions that I situate my own vision of the tasks of doing critical analysis in a democratic spirit.

The book has three parts, and certainly in my head, these three parts hang together perfectly in a narrative sequence (but hey, you can dip and dip out too, I’m sure – nobody actually reads academic books from front to back, do they?).

In the first part (Democracy and Critique) – which I can’t help but think of as the equivalent of the ‘methods’ section – Chapter 1 (An Awareness of Politics) distinguishes between  different styles of radical democratic theory, arguing that it is not disputes about the meaning of democracy that are crucial so much as different understandings of the meaning of meaning. I argue that the rise to prominence of ontological trumping in political thought is associated with an attachment to the ‘etymological gesture’ in accounting for the meaning of key terms of democratic dispute (and I also suggest that Roland Barthes has much the most interesting thing to say about democracy as any twentieth-century French thinker). In the next chapter (Criteria for Democratic Inquiry), I try to articulate, for the first time in my own writing, why I love Stanley Cavell, outlining a view of how the meaning of democracy can be best approached as a problem by roving across discussions of exemplary thinking in Arendt and Derrida, ‘the ordinary’ and the projection of new meanings in Cavell and others, ‘essentially contested concepts’, and analogies of lake-formation, and the ideas of ‘the enactment of democracy’ and democracy as an ‘ethnographically emergent’ phenomenon. This is all as a preliminary to the discussion in Part 3 of the book (Phenomenologies of Injustice) about attending to the force of assertive claims against injustice.

Before getting to that bit, though, the book has a big middle section (Rationalities of the Political), consisting of three chapters in which I try to redeem something of value from what has become the deadeningly simple analysis of ‘the political’, the post-political, and (de-)politicization. In draft, this section was very long, 100,000 words or so, and it was largely negative in tone, but then I remembered the reason why I cut a very similar section from a previous book I wrote – because it seemed a waste of an opportunity to write so much about something that you didn’t actually feel was of much value. So I try to reconstruct the kernel of what is interesting about the tradition of predominantly Francophile discussions of the theme of ‘the political’ (a large part of the answer to what is most interesting about that theme is… the American strand of debates about the eclipse of ‘the political’). I argue (in The Ontological Need) that the splitting of politics into 2 parts (politics and the political, etc – a trick that is mind-blowing the first time you come across it, but quickly loses its allure) – needs to be saved from the prevalent ontological reading in which it has now been entombed. Discussions of the political, certainly in GeographyLand and related fields as well as in a great deal of political theory – qualify as metaphysical in the sense used by Cora Diamond: they impose requirements on what and how phenomenon should appear and how they should be apprehended in order for them to qualify as properly political. It is, really, a bizarre style of analysis, but one which is really good for reproducing certain sorts of spatialized romanticism. Along the way, I attempt to parse different vocabularies of antagonism in political thought (in The Scandal of Consent and The Significance of Conflict), suggesting that it a good idea NOT to ontologize conflict, struggle, and contestation.

I proffer instead a view of ‘the political’ theme that recovers the phenomenological inflection of this concept as it shows up in the often rather pessimistic viewpoints of Claude Lefort, Sheldon Wolin and Pierre Rosanvallon, with a backward nod to Merleau-Ponty’s Machiavellian account of political life. Finding the interesting aspect of discussions of ‘the political’ in the emphasis on the experiential (which is emphatically not the same as super-structuralist analyses of ‘distributions of the sensible’) allows me to seamlessly link the three chapters of this section of the book to the discussion in the final part of the book.

In the final three chapters, I follow a hint by Axel Honneth and seek to reconstruct a lineage of radical democratic thought that develops not by reference to ever more refined ontologies of disruption and becoming, but by reference to the analysis of the rationalities of action. The final part of the book, the assertive part, has three steps, chapter by chapter: first, (in Claims of the Affected) I reconstruct how the theme of all affected interests has been revived in the geographical turn of certain strands of political thought, and add my own inflection (with due acknowledgement to Robert Dahl), suggesting that this idea needs to be thought of as a heuristic device rather than a prescriptive rule. That argument is then connected (in Subjects of Domination) to a consideration of how theories of democratic justice have come to pivot on the value of non-domination (partly but not only with reference to Phillip Pettit), and how this in turn implies a particular understanding of the grammar of justice claims, best articulated by the wonderful work of Iris Marion Young, my guiding light in all things democratic. The final chapter (The Sense of Injustice) then works through the implications of the argument about affectedness, non-domination and claims-making more fully, catching sight of and bringing into the open a somewhat under appreciated strand of thought that interrupts debates about how best to theorise justice not by ‘going ontological’ but by reordering the conceptual relationships between the idea of justice and the experience of injustice. That strand of thought is quite thin, it’s very recent, but it includes some heavy hitters – Shklar, Sen, for example, and it meets critical theorists like Honneth coming from another direction, and I seek in this last chapter to express why giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life matters to the vocation of critique (the theme of the priority of injustice should not be confused with a more general preference, not least in GeographyLand, for practice over theory – I explain just why it shouldn’t in a new paper in Annals of AAG – and to be clear, that paper is a supplement to the book, it contains a discussion that isn’t in the book at all).

And then the book ends, with a claim – a reminder to me more than anything else – about that earlier point that the whole book is really an essay – a preliminary to further inquiry, a setting of a scene, if not of an agenda. If there is anyone out there who wants to give me loads of money to actually pursue the research programme laid out at the end of the book, do let me know.

 

 

Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, while living in a very Respectable Street.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when I first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when I moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.

 

 

Swindon Studies: Social Science in Simpleton

carfaxOne 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.

mouldingsMichael 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.

screen-shot-2017-03-02-at-13-00-09By 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).

Are We There Yet? Or, is this what fieldwork feels like?

UntitledI have just returned from Johannesburg, a city I have not been to since 1997, when I first went to South Africa. I had a nice time, and as ever, I learnt a lot in a  short space of time by being in a very different place. I have spent lots of time in South Africa in between that first trip and now, but apart from going in and out of the the airport and a brief day-trip in the early 2000s, not any time in Jo’burg. So it was an occasion for reflecting on what it is I have been doing coming and going to South Africa in the meantime.

I remain unsure whether or not the time I have spent in South Africa counts as ‘fieldwork’, a rather precious idea in GeographyLand, the everyday world which I inhabit. Does visiting other people’s countries and finding things out about them counts as ‘fieldwork’? I certainly think I have done ‘research’ in South Africa (actually, mainly, in Durban), but I’m still not sure why I am meant to think that the quality or significance of research is meant to depend on the implied sense of immersion or exposure associated with the idea of fieldwork.

IMG_0791I have been to South Africa 17 times in the last 19 years (it’s a long flight, you have time to count these things…). Adding up all those trips, which have been as long (or not?) as 3 months and as short as a week, I have spent almost a whole year of my life there since 1997. These trips have been funded by ‘seed’ money from the University of Reading, the OU, Exeter (and who knows what grew from that money), and by proper grown-up research funding from the British Academy, and especially from the Leverhulme Trust (an historically ambivalent source of funding for African research, it should be said). Some of these trips have been associated with formal research projects, some of them with conferences, and some of them just occasions to go and meet people and find things out. And it should be said that pretty much anything I have learnt while in this other place has been dependent on the generosity of South African academics, activists, lawyers, policy makers, journalists, and the like – generosity with their time, their insight, and their own analysis of the world they live in. ‘Being there’ turns out to be an opportunity to listen to the testimony others.

Actually, the more I go to South Africa, the less and less I think of it as a place in which to pretend to do ‘research’ – I initially went to do research on media policy, on my own, in my own name; but then I ended up collaborating with other people, which seems the only reasonable way of proceeding – in my case, falling under the spell of Di Scott, and then being part of a multi-person project on democracy in Durban with all sorts of other nice and smart people, and more recently accidentally conjuring writing projects with Sue Parnell and a shared project with Sophie Oldfield. Along the way, I have passed through all sorts of spaces of research knowledge: hotels, apartments, different cities, taxis, bookshops, beaches, living rooms, offices, bookshops, coffee shops, libraries, bookshops, shopping malls, bookshops in shopping malls. I have gone from researching media policy to researching urban-based environmental politics, using ‘methods’ including interviewing to watching TV and listening to the radio, to using more or less formal ‘archives’, on one occasion delivered in person as a pile of paper, on another accessed by being ushered into a cupboard at the SABC.

I’ve actually learnt a lot about Theory across all these visits, in a weird inversion of Paulin Hountondji’s account of Africa’s ‘theoretical extraversion’ – about the way that ideas of the public sphere, or governmentality, or class, or decolonisation, amongst others, resonate and settle in a place like South Africa. Most recently, this has been my main excuse for visiting, to learn more about how ‘urban theory’ circulates through and emerges from South African situations.

So, anyway, I wonder still why it is that time spent in South Africa should present itself (to me, but also to others faced with me) as a source of something like ‘field’ experience in a way that, for example, time spent in the USA seems not to. I have, I think (I know), actually spent more time in the States as an adult than I have in South Africa, including a whole year of immersive ethnographic observation of GeographyLand at Ohio State. I have an American sister. I’ve walked pretty much the entire length of Peachtree Street (although not all at once). But none of that is translatable into a claim of professional expertise about American life and culture and politics in the way that, I suspect, time in South Africa could be. And in saying that, I know it is the case because I have a distinct sense that I have not been very good at constructing an aura of either ‘developmental’ or ‘ethnographic’ or ‘(South) Africanist’ expertise on the basis of all that time in South Africa.

And now back to life in Swindon. A non-city much the same age as Durban, half a century older than Johannesburg, and about 300 years younger than Cape Town. But no less weird than any of them.

Music to Write Books To

UntitledI participated in an ESRC-sponsored seminar last week on the theme of the politics and economies of attention, which was interesting and fruitful in all sorts of ways. Lots of the work on this topic turns around a distinction between ‘good’ forms of attention, which is focussed and contemplative and “deep”, and ‘bad’ forms of attention, which is fleeting, distracted. A certain sort of reading of a certain sort of text is the model against which other forms of attention are often judged in a great deal of high theorizing on this topic.

Trying to find something interesting to say about this topic made me aware of how the ways in which I work, both in relation to reading and writing, do not quite conform to the expected model of scholarly attention. I read with the TV on, and write while listening to music or the radio, and not serious Radio 3-type music either (it’s generally a matter of choosing between Taylor’s 1989 and Ryan’s 1989). This way of working may or may not be reflected in the depth of understanding of ideas and thinkers displayed in the things that I write. I actually find it rather odd to write, in particular, in silence. I am still in recovery from having finished a book manuscript, and found myself today, while sitting in a hairdressers, not having my hair done, constructing a list of songs that, more or less tangentially, capture something of the experience of writing the sort of book I have been trying to write for the last year and a half:

  1. I Just Don’t Understand – Spoon
  2. Jacques Derrida – Scritti Politti
  3. Acid Tongue – Jenny Lewis
  4. Distractions – Bobby Darin
  5. Why Theory – Gang of Four
  6. Unputdownable – Róisín Murphy
  7. Waking Up – Elastica
  8. We Love You – Psychedelic Furs
  9. Drink in My Hand – Eric Church
  10. Gone Daddy Gone – Violent Femmes