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.

Favourite Thinkers VII: Iris Marion Young

Picture 092Noticing, rather belatedly I now realise, that the last book by Iris Marion Young had been published got me reflecting on the different encounters I have had with her work over the years, making me feel old, and slow, but also making me realise that sometimes thinkers act as helpful companions. I have always found, on reading Young, that she had got somewhere I wanted to be well before I arrived there, but I have also found this kind of affirming – she is one of the thinkers who always reassured me that I wasn’t completely on the wrong track. So I have been reconstructing ‘my life with Iris’, which does, oddly, include one occasion when I met her in person.

I think my first encounter was in late 1989 – I was in my first term as a graduate student, and this was the moment of postmodernism in geography: Ed Soja’s Postmodern Geographies had been published earlier that year, shortly before I took my Finals as an undergraduate; the week I started as a graduate student, David Harvey’s much awaited (by me anyway) The Condition of Postmodernity was published (this is the last book I read before getting glasses; actually, I started it without glasses, but was wearing glasses by the time I finished). Shortly after this, I was leant an advance copy of the collection Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson (which might just be one of the most influential books, in a more or less unacknowledged way, in geography of the last 25 years or so). This was a revelation – it opened a door into a world where though ‘postmodernism’ was still used as a term, people were talking about more serious things in more serious ways – deconstruction, phenomenology, post-structuralism. I’m not sure that I ever took discussions of ‘postmodernism’ in geography terribly seriously again, all a bit too Rorty-lite as they were, after reading this book, which included essays by Young, Nancy Fraser, Judith Butler, Donna Haraway. I remember around that time reading Young’s ‘Throwing like a girl’ in a reading group that some of us had set up , and remember too that  the argument in it resonated because, well, I’m a boy who never could throw quite well enough – a slightly different subject-position, as we all learnt to say about that time, from the one primarily intended by Young’s analysis of gendered embodiment.

What particularly sticks in my mind as a turning-point, intellectually, for me is coming across a copy of Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference in a bookshop in 1990. In October to be precise – more or less systematically, I put the date in the front of books when I get them. Around this time, I was trying to start ethnographic research which somehow was meant to keep together various things I was interested in – space, gender, money, urbanism, culture, language, all sorts really. I gave this up, for various reasons, but partly it was because Young’s book impressed upon me the sense that there were a set of theoretical traditions it might be fun to engage with in greater depth than discussions about ‘postmodernism’ seemed to allow. So, alongside Robert Young’s White Mythologies, Justice and the Politics and Difference set me off in the direction of doing a reading-based dissertation all about deconstruction, discourse theory, Foucault, Ricoeur, postcolonialism Said, Spivak. (The two Youngs, Iris and Robert, also strike me now as exemplary figures whose work gets subjected to a certain style of reading in geography – finding someone talking about ‘spatial’ or ‘geographical’ things, but then finding them not quite up to scratch, not materialist enough perhaps, lacking an adequately sophisticated grasp of the wobbliness of spatiality, that sort of thing. Sometimes, most of the time perhaps, there are more interesting things to talk about than space, spatiality, and the like).

Picture 041Over time, I came to work out just how smart Young’s use of Derrida, Levinas, Irigary to re-read notions of public space in more affective registers was – I ended up writing about this in my book, Culture and Democracy (pages 60 to 65 if you’re really interested), but really didn’t have much to say on these issues that Young had not already got to in developing the notion of communicative democracy, in Inclusion and Democracy for example.  I’m not sure whether one should admit it, but sometimes, in a field like mine, ‘critical exegesis’ is shaped primarily by the commitments of the fan. 

Young’s response to David Harvey’s Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference is also a key reference point for another thought I now take almost for granted. Reading this in Antipode in Columbus, Ohio in the summer of 1998, what I took away was the insistence on thinking of universal notions of justice or rights as, well, discursive, that is, in terms of claims. That is, I think, a much more political understanding of universality than one finds in most other places, but also a more redeemably ‘universal’ notion of universality because of its concern with the to-ing and fro-ing of claim-making.  More generally, it was, for me at least, a precursor to thinking about claims as an important register for thinking about practices of representation or responsibility, or democracy more generally, an idea I have tried to articulate myself, but which other people like my former colleague Mike Saward or John Parkinson have smarter versions of than me.

When I started work at Bristol, in the early 2000s, I tried to teach Young alongside more obvious geographical literature on justice, by Harvey, David Smith and so on – not least, I think by then I was working out that her work did rather different things with a Rawlsian line of thought than you got in geography, where Rawls was either summarily dismissed as ‘liberal’ (an accusation that I have come to think reflects more negatively on the person making it than on the person so accused), or taken as providing a universal model to be applied to empirical situations.

In 2003, during the long Easter weekend in Durban, when most of the country seems to close down completely, I actually met Iris Young, visiting as a guest of Raphael Kadt, then editor of the journal Theoria – a few of us, Di Scott, Jenny Robinson, Murray Low, spent an afternoon in the garden of Gill Hart’s house in Musgrave, drinking wine and eating nibbles. I admit to having been more than a little bit star-struck.

IMG_4846Then in the late summer of 2003, Marion Werner, who had been a Masters student at Bristol that year, left a copy of Dissent in my pigeon-hole, pointing me in the direction of an essay by Young on a social connection model of responsibility in relation to labour solidarity campaigns. This was another ‘Wow’ moment, and I have spent the last decade shamefully ripping-off Young’s model of political responsibility in various research and writing projects. When I started at the OU, later that same year, I did my best to get Young’s account of responsibility adopted as the framework for the course on globalisation that we were making then. Later, in 2004 or 2005 we approached her to do an audio interview for the OU globalisation course, but she was unable to do so, because she was by then already dealing with her illness, from which she died in 2006. Her influence does, though, resonate across that course and various pieces of work by myself and others who engaged with it at that time. Her influence is reflected in the idea that structures that course – globalisation is a process that is realised through demands and responses that different actors make on each other. The responsibility theme also provided an important reference point for the project on ethical consumption that I worked on at this time too – Young’s ideas on the distribution of responsibility across extended fields of action provide the intellectual ballast at the front and end of the book from this project.

Most recently, in writing about justice and responsibility and ethics in geography, I have tried to be more explicit than before about what it is that Young’s work brings to the debates that geographers engage with, or at least draw from. Her concept of political responsibility comes into better focus if you triangulate it, for example, with Cohen’s work on justice and Pogge’s working up of the idea of a global basic structure. I also noticed around the time of writing these pieces that Young, like one or two other thinkers I was reading, made more or less explicit reference to Pettit’s account of republican freedom as non-domination in working up her account of responsibility – one day, if I have time, I’d like to delve deeper into that relationship in the case of Young’s ideas and others. I think, in particular, what is of most value is the theme of shared responsibility that Young develops across all the work on the idea of justice and responsibility over the last decade or so of her life: this is a lot smarter than the standard move of simply asserting that one needs to think in terms of collective responsibility rather than individual responsibility (which kind of closes down problems of effective agency in its knock-down simplicity). By bringing into view differential capacities to act responsibly, it is a resolutely political but not moralising notion of responsibility. And if you can’t find something of ‘geographical’ value in this work, something which does not need simply to be corrected, then you just aren’t trying.