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 – or at least, it’s real, since the formal publication date is next month (so I reserve the right to blog further about it as and when). 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. 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.




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.