Space, Power and the Commons: new book in Place, Space and Politics series

9781138841680The latest book in the Routledge Research in Place, Space and Politics series is now published (technically it is a 2016 book) – Space, Power and the Commons: The struggle for alternative futures is edited by Sam Kirwan, Leila Dawney and Julian Brigstocke, and is associated with the Authority Research Network. It’s an important addition to the literature on the theme of ‘the commons’, not least because it draws together discussions of high theory on this topic (Hardt, Nancy, Ranciere, etc) with empirical analyses of practices of ‘commoning’.

This is the second title to appear in the Place, Space and Politics series, after the collection on Urban Refugees. There are more titles in the pipeline. More details on the series, including guidelines for submitting proposals, can be found here and here.

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.

Remaking the Commons

There is a new issue of Reviews in Cultural Theory available on-line. It is on the theme of ‘Remaking the Commons’. Amongst other things, it includes an interview with Lauren Berlant and Michael Hardt, on love as a political concept (And, just to keep the theme going, the conversation touches on dressage, obviously. It’s suddenly everywhere).

New book by David Harvey: Rebel Cities

Between trying to take a day off and teaching overload (at the same time), I have been speed-reading David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: from the right to the city to the urban revolution, bought on a day out in Bath. I know, this is the sort of book you are meant to buy at Booksmarks or somewhere like that, but Bath is the closest place to where I live with decent book shops (Oxford doesn’t count, because it doesn’t actually have great bookshops, apart from Blackwell’s, and the OUP bookshop, both of which are more like academic libraries where you can buy the books, if you see what I mean).

The book is a collection of mainly recent pieces on urban politics, including a long essay on The Right to the City from New Left Review; the long, written-out-in-neat story of the ongoing urbanization of capital that underwrites the financial meltdown of 2007/8 which Harvey’s viral RSA animation lecture covered; and a set of pieces at the end reflecting on recent events such as the Occupy movement, London riots in 2011, and more interestingly, urban politics in Latin America.

It has some familiar limits, shall we say – an aversion to rights-talk when thought of as anything more than a convenient strategic fiction, and a simplistic contrast between ‘individual rights’ (not to be trusted), and ‘collective’ rights (more of these, please). And a tendency to defer the most pressing problems of political analysis to the field of concrete struggle (the word ‘democracy’ doesn’t feature in the index of this new book, which I thought was telling, until I noticed that the index only lists proper names of people and places and movements, which is a shame).

The two most interesting pieces in this new book are in the middle. A neglected essay, from more than a decade ago, analyses cultural commodities from the perspective of the Marxist conceptualization of monopoly rent. I think there is a lot of mileage to be had from this sort of approach, or at least I used to, when I thought more about these things (I think Nicholas Garnham had a similar line once), though it inevitably runs aground on the limits of an account of commodities that still invests heavily in the manly notion of value being derived from living labour in the production process (come in, Carolyn Steedman).

The other piece, perhaps the most interesting in fact, is on the concept of the urban commons. It’s a critical engagement with a notion that has become quite central to certain strands of contemporary left theory and politics, as both a ‘slogan’ and ‘ideal’ we might say. Philosophically, the commons has emerged as a kind of ontological security blanket for the revival of discussions of communism, a sort of immanent presence that just needs to be recognised and embraced – it is a weirdly post-political idea. Harvey suggests that the commons is always likely to be a construct of struggle and conflict, an effect of one form or another of exclusion or enclosure – he proposes the notion of ‘commoning’ as a practice to be analysed and encouraged. He also points out the degree to which the anarcho-inflection of this concept in contemporary thought systematically evades problems related to variations of ‘scale’ (a criticism which could be read, if one wished, as a surrogate for a much broader evasion of the problem of democracy in this style of leftist political romanticism). Harvey is rather sheepish in his suggestion that a little bit of hierarchy might be OK, although this is really just another way of saying that democracy is an art of governing, amongst other things.

Harvey makes use of the ‘conventional’ thinking of Elinor Ostrom in his discussion of the contradictions surrounding issues of commons, which is also refreshing, and another departure from the constrictions of the hegemonic account of this idea that draw on Hardt and Negri and others (he does not, however, go very far down the line of thinking about institutional analysis and institutional design that this reference point might open up). And there remains something rigid about Harvey’s understanding of ‘public’ attributes – public goods and public space are understood as gifts dragged out of ‘the state’ by class and other struggles, a sort of grudging background that might be actively, creatively appropriated by practices of genuine commoning (what Harvey describes as commoning in this respect looks a lot like authentic public action as described by Arendt, which is only to suggest that it might also suffer from some of the same problems as that description, not least a hint of an image of pure action freed of instrumental concerns).

[The baby’s just been sick, I have to pause].

In this account of commoning as the appropriation of already constructed background environments, Harvey’s critical reconstruction of the notion of the commons ends up, then, looking quite ‘conventional’ itself, although not necessarily in a bad way – whisper it, but there is a minor theme in Harvey’s work I think, behind the rhetoric of revolution, that sees left politics primarily in terms of seeking after more just, more equitable distribution of surplus in the here and now (and there’s no reason that this need not encompass more just relations of surplus production). The rhetoric of unified revolutionary transformation is in abundance in this book, certainly, but it is not really supported by an analysis of politics, culture and economics that has so relentlessly, over many years now, demonstrated the dynamics of fracturing, differentiation and contradiction that inhabit any and all forms of human action (the idea of revolutionary transformation might, it seems to me, if you’ve read enough of David Harvey as a geographer, be deeply antithetical to a geographical imagination). The ambivalent nostalgia for social democratic settlements, for failed Swedish promises of surplus transfer from capital to labour and the like, are testament to a radical politics of redistribution that seems unable to speak its own name – it’s present in Harvey’s book about the New Imperialism, and goes all the way back to Social Justice and the City. This minor key is that of a Polanyian radicalism, not a Marxist one.