I’ve got a lot of songs but they’re all in my head

IMG_1983I have come to the end of my ‘research retreat‘ in Vancouver, and have succeeded in reducing the first sprawling draft of +200k words to a more manageable size, ready for a final edit and submission in a month or so. In the process, some themes have been reduced or sidelined, some theorists have disappeared (no Poulantzas after all), and some issues crystallised for me.

Vancouver is a good place to immerse oneself in one task, away from other cares and concerns. It’s sunny (well, they have a drought on). And it has plenty of the ‘architecture’ of Thought, those spaces that make up the distributed office: public spaces of various sorts, coffee shops and public libraries in which to write and think (and plenty of free wi-fi), loads of bookshops (my favourite is Lucky’s), as if it was the 1990s (a lot of Vancouver seems to be like the 1990s), and a decent bus service to ferry you from one place to the other as you punctuate the day’s work. In no particular order, these are the places upon which my routine settled: Cuppa Joy Coffee (great for 6.30am starts); Professor and Pigeon (the only place that wasn’t a Starbucks to do Flat Whites); Melriches Coffee House (good for the evenings); MBA House in Wesbrook Village (good to be surrounded by other studious people); Koerner Library at UBC (a proper university library, it has the books you think it won’t have but turns out that it does); and the bar at Cardero’s on Coal Harbour (good for talking about the history and philosophy of geography, amongst other things).

I should say that I am surprised by just how much Neil Young is played in Vancouver’s coffee shops, bars and restaurants. You know you are in Canada when….

So back to the real world now, to a rainy bank holiday weekend in Swindon, kids back to school next week, start of term on the horizon, and a book to finish – back to Baila.

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Favourite Thinkers VIII: Wasting my life with Jonathan Lethem

Venice.jpgA while ago now, I mentioned a coffee-table book I had been given about the ideal bookshelf. One of the contributors to this was Jonathan Lethem, who I may or may not have known about before. But we’ll come back to that. Lethem’s books also appeared on quite a few of the ideal bookshelves of other contributors to this volume, I seem to remember. I particularly liked Lethem’s thoughts on his choices of favourite books (not one of which I have read). I underlined this:

“The thing about this bookshelf is that each of these books is a vast experience unto itself, while also being both self-contained and superbly useless. Reading any one of them doesn’t get you anywhere particularly meaningful; you haven’t arrived or graduated; you’ve just gone and done something that passed the time. It’s like taking a long walk with a friend who’s got a lot to say. There’s no cumulative purpose to it – it’s just an excellent way to waste your life”.

I’ve ended up spending quite a lot of time in the company of Lethem, more or less accidentally bumping into some of his books over the last couple of months. Over Easter, in Covent Garden, I bought a copy of his collection of essays, The Ecstasy of Influence, under pressure from a 6 year old imploring me to hurry up and choose something. I bought it on the basis of the title, the colourful spine, and the vague recollection of the author’s name, and because it seemed to include essays on things like Otis Redding and Devo. It’s what Lethem calls a ‘bloggish book’ of short reviews, essays, and one or two fiction pieces, ranging from serious subjects like living in New York in the aftermath of 9/11 to a range of pop culture reflections on topics such as discovering The Go-Betweens. The title essay is a little manifesto on the creativity of copying, borrowing, and re-using – first published in Harper’s Magazine, it performs a grand exercise of plagiarism in developing ideas about the gift economy and public commons as the dynamic source of cultural life (the ideas and practice are further developed in Lethem’s Promiscuous Materials, which you can find out about along with other bits and pieces at Lethem’s website.

A week later, I came across a collection of his short stories while on holiday in Devon (the third surprising encounter within 10 minutes while strolling down the main street in Totnes), and then, a couple of days later, still on holiday, found a copy of one of his novels, Motherless Brooklyn, a great ‘crime novel’ of sorts.

DomeHaving spent some time with Lethem while on holiday, I then enjoyed his company again while in LA for a conference at the beginning of April. At The Last Bookstore, I found a copy of The Disappointment Artist, another non-fiction collection, but with a more coherent theme, a series of semi-autobiographical reflections on his attachments to things like comics, or pop music, or the films of John Cassavetes (that’s a great bookstore by the way, playing the soundtrack from Friday Night Lights while I was there, which was lovely). One thing I like about Lethem’s writing is a recurring concern with this issue of attachment, attunement, obsession, and immersion in specific cultural worlds – life as lived through the medium of fandom, being taken over by a series of works of some sort.

When I got back from LA, I then noticed that one of the books that Amazon had been prompting me to buy for a while was a book about the Talking Heads album Fear of Music. This is just one in a series of books on ‘classic’ albums, not the sort of thing I normally read at all (honest). Now though, having spent the previous month acquainting myself with Lethem, I noticed that the author of this little book was none other than the very same Jonathan Lethem. My algorithmic avatar suddenly coincided exactly with my situational self.

Scan 130200001-2The Fear of Music book is really excellent, if you like the sort of thing that Lethem likes, which it seems that I do, to a certain extent at least. He writes about the record by tacking back and forth between the experience of listening to it in 1979 as a 15 year old and his current, adult self. So, it turns out not just to be a nerdy fan book at all, in so far as it develops a serious account of the relations between one’s old, current, and next self. Writing about this record in the space between ‘the boy in his room’ and ‘the aging fan writing these words’, Lethem brings to light the degree to which avowals of cultural authority, taste, and judgment often turn on the performance of knowingness that is a disavowal of processes of learning and discovery – expressed in the the trick, or is it a temptation, of appearing to always already have known about an artist, or a chain of influences, or a line of significance that, in fact, one once knew nothing about, and which came after one’s initial seizure by a work: “The mind making retrospective sense of the artwork is a liar. Or a lie. Unspooling expertise and arcana, the critic spins a web of knowingness that veils its manufacturer, a spider shy of the light”. This theme of the knowing character of cultural taste is a feature of other essays by Lethem I have read, including ‘Dancing about architecture’, where he writes about the dorky knowingness of being a fan, where being able to spot influences and point out references to other sources is analysed as “a revenge of the seduced”. One way of processing one’s own capture by a song, a band, a novelist, a theorist perhaps, is to place one’s pleasure into a wider context of knowledge and prior disposition – it’s a way of acknowledging the force of the attraction while presenting this as something that still somehow remains under one’s own control.

Most recently, in Liverpool a couple of weekends ago, I came across another of Lethem’s novels, The Fortress of Solitude, again while stealing a minute from one of my children to book browse (or was it sharing a minute?). It’s about growing up in Brooklyn, again, and being a fan, and gentrification, and about not quite knowing what’s going on.

So I feel like Lethem is my new imaginary friend, he seems to share some of the same tastes as me, in films (I like Westerns too), in music, in literary theory, though he is, inevitably, smarter and more clued in than me on all these things and others. He seems like the older brother I never had; or needed. And he has a nice way of articulating the relations between learning, knowing, and pretending that make up whole worlds of intellectual anxiety and authority.

And I also identify with the idea of ‘used bookstore lag’ that Lethem refers to when describing his own pattern of learning and knowing – it resonates strongly with me, suggesting both a sense of discovering ideas late, after their time has passed; but also of discovering ideas unexpectedly, of receiving them as gifts of chance.

Browsing as ethnography?

Does book-browsing in a foreign country count as a way of doing ethnography of the public intellectual culture of that place? I like to think so. Bloemfontein, where I have been spending this week at a workshop, and doing other bits and bobs, has a decent range of bookshops – at least two branches of Exclusive Books, the nation-wide bookstore, but also a good University-related Protea bookstore. There are a lot more Afrikaans-language books here than in Durban, where I have spent most of my time in South African before now, not surprisingly (including a Christian family bookstore called CUM books, believe it or not). The politics of Afrikaner identity is very much alive a live issue in the Free State, it seems.

Anyway, on my observation, there are a few publishing trends which seem interesting. One is the blossoming of SA-based and authored crime fiction – although more interesting, I think, is the work of Lauren Beukes, who writes sci-fi, of a sort, but really dystopic urban noir about South African cities the day after tomorrow – I am half way through Moxyland,  based in a near-future Cape Town, and have Zoo City, about Johannesburg, packed in the bag to take home.

There are also a lot of books about contemporary ANC politics, more than there were a decade ago or less even, some of them histories or biographies, and an interesting series of short books on current hot topics published by Jacana press, as well as lots of things about ANC politics right now, a month or so away from the big Indaba to be held here in Mangaung, where the conflicts about the Zuma leadership will be settled, one way or the other.

If I were here longer, I’d be reading all these – South African TV is designed to encourage reading. But I’m here just for a fleeting visit, enough only to start the newly published biography of JM Coetzee (600 pages, and he doesn’t write a novel ’til 200+ pages in – and nor had he led an exciting life before that), and the ever wonderful Ivan Vladislavic’s short collection The Loss Library, about writing-projects imagined and/or started but never completed – a topic close to my own heart.

Favourite Thinkers IV: J.M. Coetzee

I was idly surfing for videos of philosophers giving talks, and find that Robert Pippin, who you can watch ‘live’, has a recent essay in a collection of philosophical reflections on the work of J.M. Coetzee (Pippin is also writing about Westerns, a fun juxtaposition with his work on Hegel, Nietzsche, and the like). Coetzee has become a favourite of English-language philosophy with a Continental bent recently, with writers such as Stephen Mulhall, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond and John McDowell all finding resources for philosophical reflection in his work – in particular, it is Coetzee as an ethicist of sorts that seems to attract philosophers’ attention. The idea that Coetzee’s fictions add up to a sustained oeuvre of ethical thought is not a new one – the literary theorist David Atwell was making that argument more than a decade ago – but philosophical interest in Coetzee seems to be a ‘post-Disgrace’ phenomenon, related to the more explicit engagement with issues of animal rights and ethical propriety that Coetzee has been elaborating through the recurrent figure of Elizabeth Costello in a number of works.

The philosophical framing of Coetzee is a new stage in the variable reception history of his writing, which I wrote about way back in the late 1990s – then, you could discern both a geographical difference in how Coetzee was read in South Africa and South Africanist circles, and a generic difference in how he was read by academic theorists and generalist critics. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Coetzee was a favourite novelist for literary theorists, particularly those of a poststructuralist inclination,and especially amongst postcolonial theorists. There was a circular relationship involved here, in so far as Coetzee’s novels are of course highly ‘academic’ in their form and content, so they are kind of ‘always already’ available to be mined for evidence of certain literary theoretical axioms. I wonder if the same circularity isn’t involved in the philosophical interest in his work too? There is something odd about the supreme allegorist, Coetzee, having his novels read as allegories of certain theoretical, philosophical arguments.

I used Coetzee in my PhD back in the early 1990s, as a way of making sense of Spivak’s account of subaltern representation – not least, because at that time, she often invoked Coetzee’s Foe as an exemplar of her thesis. This engagement with Coetzee’s work was an important influence on my own intellectual and academic trajectory – it was a way into debates about South African cultural policy, and I ended up doing research on these issues from 1996 onwards; this was also a way out of a certain kind of dead-end of cultural theorising that 1990s human geography was sending me down. My initial interest was in the fact that Spivak’s invocation of Coetzee in support of her theoretical position was rather de-contextualised, in so far as it was detached from Coetzee’s rather controversial status at that time within debates about anti-apartheid cultural politics. Coetzee had always resisted incorporation into the forms and norms of ‘political’ writing that defined so much South African fiction in the 1980s (One of my most cherished ‘bookshop moments’ is coming across a copy of Upstream, a little magazine published in Cape Town in the ’80s, from 1988, in Ike’s bookshop in Durban. This edition, which cost me 10 Rand, contains an essay by Coetzee called ‘The Novel Today’ in which he tries to articulate the validity of the idea of the novel as an autonomous form not to be reduced to the imperatives of ‘historical’, that is political, expediency). At that time, the early 1990s, though, the settled models of cultural politics in South Africa were coming apart, both through ‘official’ revision in ANC circles and amongst academic writers such as Rob Nixon. Coetzee’s international reputation has grown and grown of course since the end of apartheid, and the end of that particular framing of South African writing – though of course, domestically he remained and remains a controversial figure, being denounced as racist when Disgrace was published (by a very high-ranking ANC politician no less) and then following a more general trend amongst white South Africans of emigrating (though he went to Adelaide, not Perth, or London). The Oxford based literary scholar Peter McDonald, in his book The Literature Police and elsewhere has uncovered the fascinating story of apartheid-era censorship systems in which Coetzee was, personally and as an author of fictions, ambiguously embroiled.

I haven’t worked on or written about Coetzee for more than a decade – as I say, it turned out that he was route away from literary theory and work on textuality (although I think these fields of research remain rather more valuable than they are given credit for in geography these days – a two decade metaphysical odyssey from postmodernism to ‘speculative realism’, affect theory and materialities has managed to pass by the flowering of all sorts of sociologically inflected, ethnographically informed accounts of the institutions and political economies of reading publics, publishing, popular literacy, national cultures, and educational practices, which might cash-out the promise of a materialist imagination rather better than repeated ontological assertions about materiality per se). I still read his books regularly, from a sense of duty and familiarity – they do have a ‘serial’ quality to them in their repetition of certain themes of high literary modernism. I like some of them more than others – Slow Man, his first novel after leaving South Africa, I enjoyed reading, while in South Africa, because it almost had a proper story in it. The multi-perspectival approach of The Diary of a Bad Year was a bit too didactic after a while. But Summertime, the most recent not-quite-autobiographical fiction managed to pull off the ‘where is the author?’ trick while also being funny, touching, and prosaically tragic (I know a South African who did a Masters dissertation on Coetzee’s fiction, Orli Bass, who wrote a letter to him to ask for an interview – she got a lovely, brief note in response, words to the effect that he believed that ‘books deserve to make their own way in the world’ – this is pretty much the theoretical premise that Coetzee’s fiction and his public profile seeks to systematically enact, which is why it proves so difficult to pin him and his work down in standard modes of critical interpretation. In turn, it’s why the fiction can be presented as exercises in ethical practice).

One of the things that seems to get lost in the theoretical-philosophical allegorization of Coetzee’s fictions is the brilliance, I think, of his work as a theorist and critic. He is after all, or was, a professional, academic, theorist. His conceptualization of the dynamics of censorship and offence in Giving Offence is wonderful and compelling; I think his consistent engagement with the problems of authentic expression in contexts saturated with ‘political’ imperatives, through the figure of Erasmus’ fool for example, is a deeply important contribution to thinking about the politics of free expression, ethics, and political responsibility; and one of my favourite pieces by him is an essay on The Misfits, which is as significant as anything written by Coetzee on the ethics and justice of human-animal relations through the figure of Elizabeth Costello I think, and which turns on the observation that a movie full of wonderful actorly performances by Monroe, Gable, Clift, and Wallach revolves around a purely deictic presentation of the suffering and fear and passion of horses. Sometimes, the real theoretical and philosophical force of Coetzee’s writings might be much better registered in these non-fictional genres – the essay or review – than in the fiction; but oddly, these texts don’t provide the same authority as the ‘stories’ which often enough write out the same arguments in fictional form.

Collecting My Thoughts

This time last year we moved house, and I found myself re-reading a well-known essay by Walter Benjamin called ‘Unpacking My Library’. It’s a lovely piece for anyone with an unhealthy attachment, of some sort, to books, of whatever kind, as artefacts. The essay is about the prosthetics of thought and memory, which is a common enough theme I guess, but what is really distinctive about Benjamin’s essay is how he captures the active sense of ‘collecting’ books as a habitual mode of thinking, rather than fixating on the contents of a fixed collection once acquired.

Benjamin’s essay is really quite funny in exposing the nerdiness involved in acquiring books as a process of thought, but in a serious sort of way. The aspect of the essay that rings most true for me is the sense of chance and coincidence that book-buying and book-browsing implies about how one’s own engagement with ‘Theory’ works. He articulates this around the idea of book collecting as a way  of investigating new cities: “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Unpacking the library is packed-full of memories, and regrets – for books half-finished, writing-projects never even begun.

The places which are evoked by unpacking my books were often more prosaic than those with which Benjamin was most familiar, although I do have favourite bookshop memories from cities like Paris, Stockholm, Cape Town, or Chicago. More often, though, the places my books evoke are towns like East Grinstead or Cirencester (the town where I can first remember buying a book for myself, in a now defunct Woolworths; You Can’t Win Them All, Charlie Brown, it cost 50p, new). Of course, unpacking books, or just rearranging them, also evokes memories of bookshops which are no more, like Oxford Books in Atlanta, my first experience of a real American bookstore (books and coffee, what a smell!), or Compendium Books in Camden Town, a bookshop so important in shaping the thoughts of an entire generation of British Theory-heads that is was obituarised in Radical Philosophy when it closed.

Our house move last year involved relocating to the weird and not-so-wonderful town of Swindon, and one of the things that was reconciling me to this was the knowledge that at least there was a big Borders on the outskirts of town. The week we moved, it was announced that it was going to close (much to the anger of local residents, many of whom really appreciated the Starbucks upstairs – there are not so many places in that part of town for new mums to hang-out with prams; the Starbucks has survived, only now it is upstairs in a shiny new branch of New Look). Earlier this year, just to make me feel even better, the Oxfam book and record store in town also closed down. Swindon now has fewer bookstores than East Grinstead, the town I grew up in, with dreams of leaving for more bookish places.

Oxfam bookstores sell second-hand books, but they are run along the lines of commercial second-hand bookshops (not a little controversially). Where we lived before moving to Swindon, in what one of our friends and fellow residents once described to us as the ‘Guardian-and Tofu-Ghetto’ of Bishopston, in Bristol, we were a five minute walk up the hill from an Amnesty bookshop. Amnesty bookshops get all their books from donations, so unlike Oxfam shops, their books are dead cheap. I’ve come to realise that this bookshop has had a powerful influence in shaping how I think as an academic over the last decade. It’s located on the Gloucester Road, the faintly alternative heart of independent retailing in North Bristol, equidistant from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England – Bishopston is, according to census data, the most educated ward in the whole country (containing a high proportion of geography professors prolific in theorising about neoliberalism too). All of which means the Amnesty shop has this high turnover of lots of academic books of a particular vintage. This shop is a veritable repository of the ‘long-tail’ of a certain sort of British left-sociological culture of the 1970s through the 1990s. It is never without a copy of Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, or Richard Hoggart’s The Use of Literary. There is also a regular supply of complete sets of OU Social Science or Humanities courses books, as students finish one year’s study before moving on to the next level (at least, that’s what we all hope if we work at the OU). Sometimes, books with the names of an academic with whose work you are actually familiar appear – books owned by Jean Grimshaw, the feminist philosopher, or Peter Haggett, the geographer.

I have come to cherish this bookshop like no other I know, primarily because of the promise of stumbling across something I didn’t even know I might want to read which will only cost £1.50, at most. I once bought a box full of volumes of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works, not the whole set mind, the Progress Publishers editions from Moscow published by Lawrence and Wishart, for £15, which worked out at about 90p a volume (I turned up the chance of buying the box of Lenin as well). Most of these are not volumes you would want to read, unless you are inclined to do a PhD on Engels’ fascination with military strategy and hardware (and it turns out that, like some of us cheap academic hacks these days, Marx and Engels both helped make ends meet by writing entries for Encyclopedias – my favourite is Engels little piece on ‘The Camp’, pre-dating Agamben on that topic by more than a century; although even he doesn’t mention that this is actually the name of a small hamlet in the Costwolds, as you drive out of the Stroud valley towards Cheltenham and Gloucester).

This is the only academic bookstore I know of where you can buy classics of modern social thought for 50p, often with the added value of someone else already having annotated the best bits for you; I have never spent more than £4 on a book here. Sometimes, you do come across a recent, up-to-date volume. I bought a copy of Twenty Theses on Politics here a few months ago (I still go back to visit), by Enrique Dussel, the leading political philosopher and theorist of contemporary Latin American politics (See http://www.enriquedussel.org/Home_en.html). I had heard of him before, never read anything by him, but there it was, a couple of quid, almost new. But mostly, the books I buy in this shop are older ones, maybe collections of political writings by Weber, old editions of Goffman, that sort of thing. But it is not just the age of the books you find in the Amnesty shop that accounts for their odd combination of intellectual appeal and cheapness – these are not antique volumes, or first editions of any value. These are the books that other academics, teachers, former students or educated lay readers have decided not worth keeping any more. By arriving here, on these shelves, they attest in their own way to their own lack of contemporary resonance, or at least this estimation by those who have chosen to give them away. It’s not just the unlikely student of Engels’ later works who might find an archive of materials here, but anyone who wants to reconstruct the debates on the left of the early and mid-1980s around Thatcherism, often Marxism Today-led conversations which still assumed that Labour might win an election in 1987 or 1988; or the excitement which Glasnost and Perestroika provoked for a reorientation of left-thinking; or the infusion of Marxist ideas into social work or education theory in the 1970s; or the literature of the anti-psychiatry movement (but not Foucault – nobody seems to donate Foucault books for free; he still resonates, clearly). The pamphlets and little magazines out of which New Labour emerged, or the extensive, theoretically sophisticated historiographical anthropological analyses of Southern African politics generated by and around the anti-apartheid movement – all of this can be gathered up from this shop, if you are willing to bide your time.

I haven’t invested my pennies (it wouldn’t be much more) in acquiring any of these archives, although each one would make for an intellectually challenging and valuable project. But I have certainly back-filled some of the holes left by own education-in-Theory over the last decade by buying a book every week or so from this shop, although I’m not to admit which holes. Returning to Benjamin, then, I like to think of this little shop as providing a twist to his tactical image of book collecting – here, collecting other people’s cast-offs is a way of travelling back into recent intellectual pasts, of measuring the unacknowledged distance between then and now, of getting a glimpse of what once seemed possible or plausible yet now seems nothing more than embarrassing, but also, perhaps a little more optimistically, of noticing the little advances or shifts in culture that have rendered certain sorts of critical, theoretical elucidation slightly less pressing.