The Afterlives of Theory: representing ‘the priority of injustice’

Academic work has a weird temporality to it, things develop slowly, research takes time, getting things published even longer. Having taken a long time to write, once published, books make their own way in the world. The post-publication pathways of The Priority of Injustice seem now to have now passed through the review stage. In addition to two ‘Author Meets…’ sessions now published in Political Geography and the AAG Review of Books, the book has been nicely reviewed by Alan Latham (who does raise the pertinent question of why people like me worry so much about traditions of thought that take no notice of the academic worlds which people like both of us actually inhabit) and Jean Carmalt (who compared the book to a Jackson Pollock picture, I think in a good way).

I now seem to be in the stage where I find myself speaking on behalf of the argument laid out in the book – representing it one might say. (If you’re keen, you can now watch me on YouTube talk to these themes at the CONGEO online meeting in December, the Conference on Political Geography, Geopolitics, and Territory Management, organised by Brazilian geographers).

The very first review of the book was written by Stephen Przybylinski, and last week I took part in a Zoom-mediated seminar organised by Stephen as part of the Just North research programme, a European-wide research network anchored at Uppsala University (amongst other things, the project has developed some excellent resources outlining the key aspects of different traditions of theorising justice). Along with Sophie Watson and Mustafa Dikeç, both ex-OU colleagues, I spoke about what I made of the idea of ‘spatial justice’.

Spatial justice is actually not a theme I have a strong attachment to: it’s one of a family of ideas around which justice-issues have been discussed in and around GeographyLand over the last three or four decades (One thought I floated during the seminar was that this particular strand of thought might have something to do with the coming-late to spatial theory in planning studies, where the influence of Lefebvre and ‘the production of space’ theme has been perhaps more singularly influential than in human geography). The discussion last week also helped clarify for me, at least, the degree to which ‘spatial’ in the formula ‘spatial justice’ refers not just to the idea that forms of inequality, or exploitation, or domination have spatial manifestations, but to the stronger tradition of thinking that the main task is to locate the root causes of these forms of harm – in the dynamics of ‘the production of space’, ‘the urbanization of capital’, ‘accumulation by dispossession’, perhaps even in the ‘constitutive movement of spatialization’ of political itself. Without rehearsing the argument all over again, the ‘priority of injustice’ approach outlined in the book and elsewhere addresses the limits of thinking that ‘critical analysis’ consists primarily of knowing about root causes. It directs attention instead to the variable geographies of claims-making processes, and in so doing it promotes a more pluralistic sense of what geographical vocabularies are good for in analysing political practices: from this perspective, there isn’t really anything interesting to say in an ontological register about space or spatiality (God forbid). [Gary Bridge’s work on ‘situational justice‘ has developed some of the implications of this way of ‘thinking spatially’].

The Priority of Injustice was presented as a prolegomena to a further inquiry, although I can’t say I had a clear sense of exactly what directions I would follow once it was finished. In amongst other things, my own sense of where further work, by me at least, developing the core themes of the book might lead falls into two areas:

First, it would be useful to actually flesh out the conceptual theme of the priority of injustice more fully – in my book, it was only the explicit focus of the final chapter, a kind of end point after journeying through various other issues in critical theory and democratic thought. The idea I was trying to capture, and name, is articulated in what one might think of as a minor tradition of political thought – perhaps inaugurated by Judith Sklair, although with antecedents in the work of Hannah Pitkin, Barrington Moore Jr, Elizabeth Wolgast, Anthony Woozley, and Edmond Cahn. There is also critical theory strand of thinking along these lines, including Nancy Fraser, James Bohman, Axel Honneth, Rainer Forst, but especially Iris Marion Young. And then there is Amartya Sen. That, roughly, is the three-way genealogy I sketched in The Priority of Injustice. There are important theoretical differences in amongst all those thinkers (some ordinary language philosophy, some third generation critical theory, some social choice theory). These differences are also evident in recent, more explicit attempts to elaborate on the priority of injustice theme (sometimes using that phrase, sometimes not – I’m doing the work of suggesting the associations): work by Eric Heinze, Francisco Blanco Brotons, Brunella Casalini, Vittorio Bufacchi, and Herbert Spiegelberg. Some of this recent work is more philosophical in orientation, even tending towards replacing theories of justice with equally foundational concepts of injustice; perhaps the more interesting strand is work that opens up the task of political theorising to more worldly, if not necessarily empirical, forms of analysis: this includes the work of Thomas Simon, picking up on Sklair’s provocations, and Michael Goodhart (as well as Sen’s The Idea of Justice). And all of this work might belong to an emergent shift of aspect, towards the analysis of ‘negative‘ phenomena such as evils, harms, injuries, vulnerabilities, and wrongs – not simply as unfortunate indications of ‘non-ideal’ situations, but as constitutive dimensions of normativity itself. Cora Diamond’s work, for example, would belong to that expanded field. (I’m just thinking aloud to myself now).

So, that’s one pathway worth pursuing – to see if it’s possible to elaborate some family resemblances across those overlapping strands of thought.

Second, it turns out that an empirical pathway for exploring the priority of injustice theme has opened itself up, which is nice. One thing that the idea of ‘spatial justice’ does indicate, like say the idea of racial justice, or environmental justice, or climate justice, is that issues of justice always arise in relation to some more or less substantive object – discussions about justice take on meaning in so far as they are about something, some issue of some sort. The ‘about-ness’ of justice isn’t incidental, merely practical or non-ideal, or a matter of application – it’s at the core of the type of conceptual priority flagged in the phrase ‘the priority of injustice’. Anyway, I now find myself working on a research project which investigates empirically the generation and processing of claims of injustice in relation to a specific field of contention, exactly the type of inquiry envisaged in The Priority of Injustice. This project looks at claims-making in the conjuncture of post-Brexit administrative reform and programmes of digital governance, taking as its empirical focus the politics surrounding the UK government’s European Union Settlement Scheme. One argument I have been proposing, in making representations on behalf of the priority of injustice, is that there is geography of claims-making that deserves more attention. This project isn’t, on the face of it, terribly geographical in its focus, not right now anyway, as we start out, but that might be an important methodological principle at play there – rather than setting off looking for certain sorts of spatial processes or practices, we might find it more fruitful to allow the geographies of this particular field of contentious claims-making to emerge through the process of inquiry.

Social Justice and the City

Now available as a hardback book, the special issue originally published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers on the theme of Social Justice and the City. As before, my chapter, as it is now, works through the relevance of the arguments made in The Priority of Injustice for fields of geographical research. It might also be one of the only chapters which addresses in any substance the original book of the same title. Not sure what to make of that.

Social Justice and the City

The latest issue of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers is dedicated to the theme of Social Justice and the City – a long standing theme, of course, in GeographyLand. As the editors of this issue state in their introductory essay, “geographers maintain fidelity to the idea that the discipline should keep working to understand unjust processes within urban life and simultaneously seek solutions to make cities more just.” The wide range of issues through which this commitment is now expressed is well illustrated by the 26 papers contained in the issue (including one co-authored by my colleague Jen Bagelman).

My own contribution to this collection is entitled ‘Geography and the Priority of Injustice‘, and extends the argument about styles of reasoning about normative issues developed in The Priority of Injustice to debates in geography and related fields. While stocks last, you can access a free download of the paper by clicking on this link – or email me and I’ll send you a copy. Here is the abstract of the piece:

“This article considers the challenges that follow from giving conceptual priority to injustice in the analysis of political life. Human geography, urban studies, and related fields of spatial theory meet this challenge halfway, insofar as expressions of injustice through social movement mobilizations are given primacy over philosophical elaborations of justice. The privileging of practice over theory, however, reproduces a structure of thought in which justice continues to be understood as an egalitarian ideal against which injustice shows up as an absence or deviation. The practical primacy accorded to expressed claims of injustice inadvertently displaces a model of authoritative, monological reasoning about the meaning of justice from ideal theory onto explanatory accounts and ontologies of space. Basic assumptions about how spatial theory matters to questions of justice are disclosed by tracing the recurrent disavowal of “liberalism” in debates on social justice and the city, the just city, and spatial justice. Thinking about claims of injustice in a double sense—as involving demands on others that require vindication—calls into question the value of inherited ideals of the political significance of the “the city,” by drawing attention to the enactment of distributed public spaces of claims-making, reasoning, and accountable action.”