Partial Reading

As I mentioned the other day, there seems to have been a feeling about that being in lockdown is an occasion to catch up on lots of reading. It’s an interesting genre, the ‘what to read while socially distancing’, because it implicitly acknowledges a kind of constitutive anxiety about not having read enough (of the right things) that certain sorts of people, people like me, suffer from. It’s a weird anxiety to have, not least because to a large extent, reading it what I do for a living – even the kind of writing I do is often a form of commentary on other texts, on things I’ve read (about).

Reading is a many-sided thing in my corner of the academic world. I read lots of emails, on very different topics and of different genres; I read minutes of meetings and agendas and drafts of policy documents and exam papers; I read student essays, and more specifically, I mark them, which is a very specific kind of reading; I read letters of recommendation; and I also re-read things I have written, things like student handbooks, exam questions, carefully crafted e-mails to colleagues.

Then there is the strange world of reading academic literature, the very crux of what people like me do. Reading academic papers and books is a rather odd form of reading, sometimes more intense than the kind of reading you do on holiday on the beach, but very often a lot more superficial. Reading of this sort can be very physical (you do it with a pen or pencil in hand, sitting up straight). It involves annotating, underlining; I write all over the things I read (much to my mothers’ enduring distaste), cross-referencing, inferring, remembering. I often read academic literature out loud, quietly, and much to the amusement of my children, because only by sounding things out do certain sorts of arguments make sense. These aren’t necessarily very effective ways of learning, it should be said. Much of this sort of reading is done for a purpose – to cite, to elaborate, to gloss what has been said. Academic reading can take the form of systematically superficial speed-reading (a large part of teaching undergraduate students in a ‘research intensive’ university involves teaching a set of implicit, poorly formulated, often unacknowledged skills of skimming texts). This sort of reading tells us something about the ways in which lots of academic writing takes the form of reporting things – how experiments were designed, evidence generated, results analysed, conclusions justified.

And sometimes, in academic worlds, reading is something myself and others do to each other.

There are, in turn, a whole set of ways of reading which are themselves forms of getting to know things. This may include various ‘methodologies’: discourse analysis, textual analysis; or more precise variants of these catch-all terms: deconstruction, or reader-response criticism, or generalised semiotics (much disdained these days, but oddly pervasive in those fields which most loudly disclaim ‘textualism’ or ‘the discursive’ yet continue to suppose that ‘non-human’ agency is best affirmed by imagining that the whole world is structured like a grammatically correct sentence).

And then there is the strange world of TheoryLand, a field of work which relies on a whole set of practices of reading (and writing about one’s reading), which are in large part at odds with the assumptions about reporting that define ‘normal’ academic reading. TheoryLand is a world defined perhaps above all by a certain sort of pomposity about proper reading, of close, immersive reading – it’s a pomposity that has its clearest expression in discussions of the ‘ethics of reading’ by writers such as Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller. In TheoryLand, you are meant to have read loads of things, but also to have read them really, really carefully, so that all texts worthy of this sort of reading (and who decides that?) are read as carefully, sequentially, as their authors assume they are going to be read when they are writing them. It’s a world shaped by assumptions about about being taken over by the text that underwrite formal and informal ideas about the virtues of ‘difficulty’ as a marker of value. The pleasures of the text, in this sort of reading, are oddly disembodied, apart perhaps when people are doing criticism, which often takes the form of saying that someone else hasn’t read things as well, as carefully, as faithfully, as the critic.

 

Reading Assignments

In my world, a large part of the process of induction into professional academic life works through books, in particular, in the form of telling students that ‘you should read this‘. Knowing what to tell a student to read is pretty much the only talent I have, although just to be clear, knowing what they should read is not quite the same thing as having read what you are recommending (and that’s neither as shameless or shameful as it might sound): one of the requirements of academic seniority is learning that it’s OK to get other people to read the things you haven’t had time to read yourself.

This idea that there are some things one just must read brings to mind, perhaps, the idea that there is a canon to master. That might be the case in some fields, in the humanities. It’s not an idea that makes much sense in GeographyLand, although there are people who think it should. I once tried to invent a very sad after-dinner party-game for Geographers, in which each person tried to admit to the books that they hadn’t read that it seemed to them that everyone else thinks that one really should have done. But it turns out, in GeograpyLand, that few if any of the things that you haven’t read actually rise to the level of generating professional shame. Anyone you are likely to play this game with, by virtue of being a professional academic in GeographyLand, is living proof that the canon arrived at in this way isn’t really canonical anyway – on the basis of my sample, it turns out that it’s possible to get along fine without ever having read Explanation in Geography, or Traces on the Rhodian Shore, or Topophilia, or Uneven Development, or Pivot of the Four Quarters, or Birds in Egg/Eggs in Bird (or is it the other way around? Oh, it doesn’t matter).

I mentioned this ‘game’ to a graduate student (without a first degree in Geography), who said it reminded them of the Humiliation game in David Lodge’s Changing Places (not read it myself), where admitting to not having read Hamlet leads to professional disgrace for one character. Of course, this model of canonical knowledge, and the image of reading associated with it, does not travel well to fields where command of a textual field is not so central. In fact, I am inclined to think that the break out of Theory in GeographyLand over the last four decades or so (and it is worth remembering that the single most important work of geographical theory produced in that period is a singularly scholarly exercise in critical exegesis) has led to an interesting internal cleavage that mirrors, at one remove, the succinct definition of the division between ‘Continental Philosophy’ and analytical philosophy provided by Stanley Cavell (don’t ask me where). He suggests that ‘Continental Philosophy’ is a genre recognisable because writers in that tradition perform as if they have read everything there is worth reading (which it turns out might not be very much, if you’re Heidegger), whereas analytical philosophers profess to focus on problems as if they haven’t read anything at all (apart perhaps from Wittgenstein, who is often read as if he’d never read anything himself). There is a dizzying dynamic of knowing and knowing that both of these styles of thought sets in train – and there is a whole architecture of academic personae built around this broad distinction, revolving around a culture of pretending to read only for the things reported and a culture of pretending to read only for what things really mean.

 

The Pleasures of the Text?

Because reading is important to what I do professionally, and because what I do professionally is wrapped up in all sorts of anxieties associated with either not having read enough or not having read properly, I have a fraught relationship with reading for pleasure or relaxation. I’m not very good at reading novels – I tend to have to trap myself into doing this, by taking novels into the bath for example. Reading has all sorts of occasions and spaces in fact – I read a lot of Marx as a graduate student, for example, and an awful lot of that was on trains and buses. I always over pack books for plane journeys, and I have managed to read not only cricketers’ biographies but also very manly books about flying planes in a single flight. The reason for a beach holiday is primarily to force oneself to read things one might otherwise not get around to. I’m learning to like reading in the garden, listening to sparrows. Quite a lot of this reading (not the Marx) depends on finding ways of retreating or holding off other tasks or other distractions, in a kind of forced withdrawal, or it takes place in the interstices of other activities (on journeys, on holiday, waiting to do other things).

Reading as a way of passing the time, or killing time while waiting, or as escape, is rather a different practice from the sort of professional reading that academics and scholars and intellectuals do – it doesn’t figure much in arguments about the edifying worthiness associated with ideas of literary reading that are so common in the humanities. Because of this difficult relationship between reading and precious time, I fret quite a lot about starting novels, in case I start something which I can’t then maintain an interest in.

And one way of thinking about the different sorts of reading one can engage in is by thinking about the status of unfinished books. Academic books, of course, aren’t really meant to be read all the way through, from front to back. There’s no shame in reading bits of an academic book, selected chapters. I’m not worried about never having read all sorts of things, but I do worry about not having finished things I have started. I have never finished The Thin Man, because I quickly got the point about its importance lying in the quality of the dialogue early on and lost interest in the mystery. I never managed to complete Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder, because it’s one of those books which is rather transparently a bit of allegorised Theory, the kind of novel that reflects back to academic critics the kinds of ideas they always already project onto the literary in the first place. I should have finished Thomas Mullen’s The Last Town on Earth, about a town in self-imposed lockdown during the Spanish flu epidemic in the USA a hundred years ago, and keep thinking I should go back and do so now, but now it’s not so enticing a prospect; likewise, with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. When I was 16, I took Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on holiday with me because it was a set text for A Level English. I can remember reading Chapter 3 on the plane home (planes, again), and thinking it was a rather obvious metaphor for life’s struggles (it’s about a turtle trying to cross the road), and realising that I would have to write an essay about this chapter, which then seemed like a total waste of time when that is exactly the task that was assigned. I gave up English at that point, as well as never finishing the book, although I don’t think that I have ever managed to escape a love/hate attachment to the interpret-ability of things that revealed itself then.

I’ve now found the perfect way of dealing with this anxiety about not knowing what to start in case I don’t finish it. I’m walking around a lockdowned house, carrying a copy of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities with me from room to room, and occasionally finding the time to read one of its short, essay-like chapters. It’s actually quite good fun. It’s modern, for sure, but not difficult in a writerly way – that’s not a kind of pleasure I find myself disciplined enough, or smart enough, to enjoy. I realise that this sounds like an absurdly pretentious sounding thing to drop into a blog post. But the point is that Musil didn’t finish this book. So I figure that it’s OK if I don’t either.

 

 

 

 

Glimpses of Austin

In a recent review of a new book defending Ordinary Language Philosophy, Sari Nusseibeh makes some interesting comments on the possible connections between the war-time service of J.L. Austin and the philosophical style he developed. He also includes a couple of personal biographical vignettes to bolster the argument (he is married to Austin’s daughter, Lucy, which might explain the access implied in his review), and mentions that a full biographical study is in the offing.

Austin is an oddly anonymous figure, someone whose influence clearly depended in no small part on the force, shall we say, of his personality, without whose presence it has even been suggested the full significance of his ideas cannot be appreciated (for example, Cavell’s presentation of Austin’s importance in general revolves around a repeated invocation of the impact that Austin’s own teaching had upon him personally). I have been interested in the relationship between the biographical and the theoretical for a long time – once upon a time I even tried to write seriously about this relation, which seems to me quite central to the genre of Theory as we have come to know and love it, but which is poorly appreciated and even more poorly theorised (the construction of author-effects around Foucault and his lectures seems to me to exemplify the point, and also manages to cover over one of the most important resources available for engaging with this problem).

Austin is a ubiquitous reference across the canon of French Theory in particular, perhaps more often mentioned than used certainly. Derrida was a fan, and Austin’s vocabulary was quite central to how literary deconstruction presented itself in the 1970s and 1980s (one of my unwritten fantasy papers would be about the ways in which deconstruction is the source for an ongoing tendency to ‘freeze’ Austin’s ideas around a simple distinction between constatives and performances, i.e. half way through How to do things with words, which helps to support strongly political, ‘de-naturalising’ interpretations of the idea of performativity [and thereby manages to sustain Emile Benveniste’s defence of this distinction against Austin’s own undoing of it]. I think this freezing still accounts for the way that ideas of performativity and enactment slip into routine constructionism all the time. ‘Force’, in Austin, is the name for a problem to be investigated, not the concept for an effect felicitously realised. Not sure I’ll ever get round to writing that one, though). The Derrida/deco link to Austin is obvious enough. Austin pops up in de Certeau, rather weakly, is more or less disavowed in Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge, is an important reference point for Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, he gets a mention in Lacan. Pierre Bourdieu’s favourite insult, that of scholasticism, is taken from Austin. I could go on (Austin of course is also at work amongst the Anglos, such as Quentin Skinner or Hilary Putnam [I’m presuming there is a world in which Austin is not contained by John Searle] , but it is French resonance that is most entertaining – the fascinating thing about Austin’s war-time service, one of those things mentioned a lot in passing, and given his status in what becomes Continental Philosophy, is that he had a rather senior role in Allied military intelligence – he played an important part in the liberation of France…. I suspect a keen sense of pretence and masquerade, or fakery in general, might have come in handy in that world).

I suppose I find this trace, more or less visible, of Austin in French Theory interesting because it throws into question a long-standing account of this style of philosophy as ‘conservative’ – a charge which dates back to Ernest Gellner’s attack on ‘OLP‘ (as it is abbreviated these days), reiterated by Perry Anderson in 1969. Austin was Anderson’s model of the de-politicised nature of post-war British philosophy. I think Austin might be an interesting case study of what it is that academics are looking for when they go in search of ‘political’ significance in bodies of thought.

Austin the man, as a biographical figure, makes an appearance in various places – in biographies of Freddie Ayer and Herbert Hart, for example, as well as in Isiah Berlin’s reflections on life in Oxford. There are fleeting sketches in Geoffrey Warnock’s book about Austin; he is mentioned in reflections by people like Bernard Williams, Stuart Hampshire, and Michael Dummett. But in general, Austin seems to be a figure who resists much fleshing out, biographically. And as I suggested above, that might be interesting not least because of the ‘ad hominen’ qualities of Austinian styles of criticism – something that Simon Glendinning has written about recently in a volume of essays re-evaluating Austin’s legacy.

Shosana Feldman has a wonderful take on the masculine framing of action in Austin, a theoretical reading of course, and one of the more interesting accounts of Austin I have come across is in Mary Warnock’s autobiography, which I bought for a pound in an unexpectedly large charity second-hand bookshop in Cheltenham earlier this year. Warnock’s story of Oxford philosophy centres on women, such as Iris Murdoch, and Elizabeth Anscombe, who harboured a deep personal hostility towards Austin it seems. She writes about being a woman admitted into the manly circle of the famed Saturday morning sessions that Austin ran, with all those aforementioned soon-to-be stalwarts of post-war British philosophy (Warnock’s stories reminded me too of the tale that Gillian Rose tells in Love’s Work, about being told at the start of her time as an undergraduate to remember that all the (male) philosophers she was about to encounter were much smarter than she was – and told this by Jean Austin, Austin’s widow).

Anyway, who knows, these and other fragments may come together and begin to make sense in the biography mentioned by Nusseibeh. I can’t find any other mention of this yet.

 

Theorizing the Arab Spring

I have a short comment piece now published online in Geoforum, which discusses various different academic responses to The Arab Spring – amongst media theorists, leading lights in ‘Continental philosophy’, and anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s an attempt to raise some questions about what we have come to think Theory is, as revealed by academic public commentary on these ongoing events – contrasting a version of Theory practiced as the imposition of pre-disposed theoretical frameworks on the world, and a version in which theoretical ideas are thought of as somewhat more accountable to the contingencies of the world.  

Avid readers of this blog (that’s you, Michael) might notice that this piece works over some more or less random thoughts already articulated back in February and March. Accidentally, this Geoforum piece became part of the experiment with this blogging-thing, as a way of turning a public-ish scrapbook into a slightly more honed piece of academic prose/analysis.

On difficulty: Derek Parfit’s new book is published

From Political Theory, news that Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, a two-volume work, has now been published. It is already being hailed as the most important work of moral philosophy since the 1870s. This is hardcore stuff, dealing with the fundamental issues of reason, rationality, and normativity.

Parfit’s classic Reasons and Persons is, I think, the most difficult thing I have ever read, or even tried to read. Back in the day, sceptics used to complain that French theory was willfully difficult compared to the clarity of ‘proper’ English language philosophy. I have always found this a bit disingenuous – it’s easy to read Continental Philosophy if you ‘grew up’ with it, as it were. And the sparse prose style of English-language ‘analytical’ style philosophy is its own sort of esotericism, especially once it’s couched within a broader frame of reference in which what’s at stake is often presumed in advance rather than explicitly signalled (the lack of referencing in this style of work is really an indication that it’s not trying to help the reader learn, unless they are already in the know; compare that to Derrida, who in his classic works actually just includes large extracts of Saussure, or Rousseau, so you get shown what it is they are saying that he is commenting upon – much friendlier, much better pedagogy).

I think the reason that a book like Parfit’s was so difficult was not intrinsic to it, of course, but because of my lack of feel for the context, the practice, of this sort of philosophical writing (the practice from within which one would be able to grasp not so much why this style of analysis matters, but what the point of it is meant to be). I actually think Reasons and Persons is fascinating – interesting stuff about the importance of thinking temporally rather than ‘spatially’ about the self, for example; its’ ‘atheism’ is clearly meant to be scandalous in a certain way. But it’s not part of a world that I inhabit – reading this sort of thing is like a hobby, in so far as it doesn’t really relate to the fields of work in which I am able to pass.

It’s also true, of course, that this style of philosophy is much more self-enclosed than ‘continental’ work – there is not really the same sort of secondary literature on a writer like Parfit which one finds on Foucault, or Derrida, or Deleuze (only very recently have publishers like Polity begun to publish critical introductions to thinkers like Cavell, Bernard Williams, Dummett, and the like). ‘Continental’ philosophy has always circulated, on the other hand, in translation – I don’t mean only, or even primarily, in terms of translations from one language to another – but in terms of the simultaneous circulation of the ‘original’ text (in translation) and a literature of both exegesis and critical commentary – Derrida-with-Culler, Derrida-with-Norris; Foucault via Edward Said; Foucault included in Dreyfus and Rabinow; Habermas via Held, or Giddens; Irigaray or Cixous or Kristeva via Toril Moi; pretty much everyone via Literary Theory. And so on.

If one were a card-carrying Foucauldian of a certain vintage, one might even suggest that these different styles of philosophical writing are defined by the very distinctive ‘author-effects’ through which key texts are disseminated and/or contained. It’s standard enough to observe that ‘Theory’ grew and developed through cultures of academic celebrity – a condition pilloried in turn by writers like David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury (my favourite of this genre is his Mensonge). English-language philosophy has its own author-effects, no doubt, they are just very different – not least, this is a style of writing that is systematically self-effacing in certain ways (all those initials: how to tell that A.J. was Freddie and G.E.M. was Elizabeth?).

In fundamental respects, it seems to me, these two styles of writing are distinguished not least by their different relationships to space, dare I say – the problem with the ‘geographical’ framing of Continental versus Anglo/Analytical, apart from anything else, is that it suggests two fixed locations – but ‘continental’ philosophy, as Theory, is shaped by always being in movement, in translation, across language and discipline; a writer like Parfit, whose new book has actually been circulating in draft for some years (that’s why there is already an edited collection out about it, and critical commentaries in the newly published two volumes) writes into what would appear to be much more of a known than an imagined community, one where the personae of the philosopher is no less important, just not in the same way as it is for the genre characterised by multiple biographies of Foucault and fanzines, apparently, for Judith Butler.

So, the ‘difficulty’ is no doubt mine; perhaps I should just get another hobby (or who knows, maybe Parfit’s new book is much easier, I haven’t seen it – though I have read a rather forbidding essay on ‘normativity’ which I think probably makes up a chapter of it, which didn’t make me confident that this would be the case). But perhaps too, the difficulty is an index of the degree to which one of these genres has succeeded in its own popularisation – is indeed internally defined by this movement towards a certain sort of general reader, of an overly qualified sort, like me – compared to the other one, the one which is supposed to be defined by the clarity of its argumentative style, but seems content to circulate amongst a world in which in-jokes about High Table at All Souls can be made to carry the full weight of serious philosophical demonstration (see G.A. Cohen’s otherwise wonderful account of the political value of conservatism for the left).