Arguing With Theory: On The Priority of Injustice

It’s a funny experience, publishing a book – something that one has lived and worked with for perhaps years and invested all sorts of energies into finally comes out, and there is an odd sense of anti-climax (it’s a lot like finishing a PhD). But it’s also odd to actually read one’s own book in proper book form, bound and beautiful, even though The Priority of Injustice is pretty much the only thing I have been reading since at least the summer of 2015. There is a kind of terror involved (what does it read like?), but also a nice experience of affirmation, as you notice that there is maybe something coherent running through the whole thing (although maybe you have to have been reading, writing and editing it for more than two years to actually notice this). So, I have now read my own book, again, cover to cover, and annotated it in detail (but only in pencil…).  At some point in the future, certainly next Spring, I will have to talk about the arguments in the book, so I am going to take the liberty of writing a few short posts over the next little while in which I am going to say out loud, to myself at least, what some of the main themes of the book are, as a kind of mnenonic practice.

The first of the themes which are central to the overall arc of the book which I want to remind myself of is that of ‘arguing with theory’.

The Priority of Injustice is a book about theory, in the sense that, as I have previously mentioned, was once used by Talcott Parsons – it treats ideas as an archive of documents that “present problems of understanding and interpretation”. But I also try to move away from an idea of Theory as a kind of standing body of ideas that one is meant to display mastery over (some hope), and instead actually try out my hand at theorizing. I realise that that immediately sounds perhaps even more pompous than the idea of mastering other people’s ideas (if it is taken as developing a whole raft of new concepts all of one’s own), but it seems to me a more appropriate, and modest ambition. (There are a couple of things I have read since writing The Priority of Injustice that express very clearly the idea of theorizing I am working towards in the book, Richard Swedberg’s The Art of Social Theory and John Levi Martin’s Thinking Through Theory – I mention them here not least to underscore another aspect of the argument I am making in the book, which is that a social theory imagination involves a different, less theoreticist style of reasoning than the sorts shared by convergent traditions of political theory and cultural theory).

There are two related senses in which I think of what I am doing in this book as theorizing.

First, I outline an approach to reading for the “spatial grammar” of different traditions of political thought, which is meant to contrast to a taken-for-granted approach in critical spatial disciplines such as human geography or urban theory of correcting the bad ontological assumptions of traditions of thought found to be inadequately attuned to 40 years worth of thinking about relational spatiality (a habit that extends to a standard style of critique of the spatial ontologies of policy-makers or journalists or corporations or one’s fellow citizens). Reading for the spatial grammar of theories is directed by a principle of charity, to borrow an idea from Donald Davidson, that is, of trying to maximise understanding across what might appear to be incommensurable vocabularies. The notion of grammar, then, in this formulation is meant to direct analytical attention “to the actions being performed in the use of words and concepts”, so that when one comes across thinkers making use of spatial and temporal concepts then the primary concern should be to take seriously “what is really at stake in their expression”. This first sense of theorizing at work in the book is related to a broader argument, developed in the first two chapters, about thinking of the meaning of normative concepts like democracy not by reference to etymological derivation but with reference to their use in new situations.

This ordinary way of thinking about concepts is linked to the second sense of theorizing in the book. It’s an approach that I seek to apply more fully in the three chapters of Part 3 of the book, in which I argue that the geographical turn in deliberative theories of democracy associated with discussions of topics like cosmopolitanism, global justice, or transnationalism is best interpreted as an occasion for a repeated disaggregation of the component parts of key principles, such as freedom, or equality, or participation. The point of developing this argument is to cash-out the suggestion I make at the start of the book, that we should think of ‘theory’ as something that “helps to direct our curiosity to issues that deserve further attention”. It leads me to recommend a heuristic notion of critical theory, borrowing this time from Andrew Abbott, where the aim of theorizing is to develop concepts “that help to orient new pathways to findings things out” – again, the contrast is meant to be with approaches to theorizing that develop models of what counts as proper politics or ideal democracy against which emergent forms always come up short. In Part 2 of the book, I elaborate this heuristic approach to the interpretation of concepts in order to to distinguish between different accounts of the distinction between ‘politics’ and ‘the political’. In what has become the standard interpretation of this distinction, the simple observation that action has conditions is transformed into strong claims about the apparent paradox that necessarily contingent foundations will always be prone to immanent forces of disruption. I suggest that the real value of the politics/the political distinction lies in the rather more prosaic task of helping “to open up new ways of investigating the conditions of political action”. It’s this version of the distinction that I then develop further in the reconstruction of the all-affected interests idea in Part 3 of the book, which I present not as a prescriptive rule for determining the scope of democratic inclusion or the form of rule, but as a guide to the analysis of the geographies of claims-making.

It’s these two related ways of theorizing – I call them ordinary in places, heuristic in others, depending on the philosophical inflection in play at that moment – that I have in mind when I claim, towards the end of the book, that The Priority of Injustice is meant as “kind of prolegomena to democratic inquiry in a geographical sprit” – as I’ve said before, I think of this book as a kind of space-clearing exercise, as an attempt to clarify problems and issues which requite further investigation.

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Talking about practices

There is an interesting paper now online in Area by Russell Hitchings titled ‘People can talk about their practices’. Now, you might think that the immediate response to that assertion is ‘Of course they can’. After all, if they couldn’t, we certainly wouldn’t be able to. But Hitchings’ paper is intervening against what has become an orthodoxy of sorts, at least within the weird world of social and cultural geography, to the effect that interview methodologies, and talk-based methods more generally, are irredeemably ‘representational’ and therefore unable to ‘capture’ all that is most fecund about everyday, routine, habitual practices. Here is the abstract of the paper:

“This paper considers the value of using interviews to research routine practices. Interviewing could easily be framed as inappropriate for this task, either because such practices are too difficult for respondents to talk about as a result of having sedimented down into unthinking forms of embodied disposition or because this method is out of step with a current enthusiasm for research styles that do not focus unduly on the representational. The discussion starts with how some key proponents of social practice theory have characterised the possibility of talking with people about these matters before turning to my own experience with two interview projects that attempted to do so inside city offices and older person households. I conclude that people can often talk in quite revealing ways about actions they may usually take as a matter of course and offer suggestions about how to encourage them.”

Whatever happened to make an entire sub-discipline of human geography, supposedly one of the most important ones too, follow a theoretical and methodological path that leads to a point where an argument like that of Hitchings in this paper has to be articulated at all, and somewhat tentatively at that? I have to say that I have shared the same ‘unease’ that Hitchings mentions in his piece about having invested time in interview-style research – but then I remembered the problem isn’t really mine. We wrote about some of these same issues in our book on ethical consumption, in the chapter grandly called ‘Grammars of Responsibility’, which seeks to make sense of how interactive talk-data (i.e. focus groups) can help to throw light on everyday practices. I think the ‘non-representational’ prejudice that provoked this chapter, and seems to have provoked Hitchings’ piece too, revolves around three related intellectual moves:

1). One of the oddest, yet most resilient, themes of recent discussions about theory and methodology in human geography is the idea that ‘discourse’ and ‘textuality’ and ‘language’ have been thought of as ‘representational’ mediums until, roughly speaking, about 1996, when geographers discovered the joys of ‘non-representational’ styles of thought (i.e. finally got round to reading Deleuze). Needless to say, this is deeply silly. Doing things with words, indeed.

2). One of the recurring motifs of discussions about exciting and creative methodologies in this strand of human geography for more than a decade now has been the idea that some approaches can’t quite ‘capture’ aspects of practice, process, emergence, becoming – life itself. And some other approaches – non-textual, non-discursive ones, often ‘visual’ methodological approaches, by extension are presented as a little better, if not a lot better, at ‘capturing’ things that are in motion, emergent, inventive. Needless to say, no methodology is meant to aspire to capture anything, one way or the other. Social science is not best pursued on the assumption that what most matters is elusive or evasive.

And the idea that visual methods somehow avoid the ‘representational’ – let’s call it the ‘interpretative’ for clarity’s sake – is based on a massively embarrassing philosophical error (and that’s leaving aside obvious points about technical mediation and framing): just looking at an event, an action, a scene, is not enough to tell you what that event, action, or scene actually is (i.e. what practice it belongs to). Knowing what some embodied sequence of movement is depends on ‘getting’ something about it, something about context, about intention, about meaning.

To presume otherwise – to presume that knowing the full significance of an observed action or interaction or sequence of events can somehow do without or marginalize the shared understandings expressed in the things that participants might have to say about them – is, again rather oddly, not only to negate the interpretative competency of ‘people’ who are the subjects of social science research, but is to reproduce a very old-fashioned preference amongst social scientists for third-person, externalist, causal accounts of action over and above those provided by first-person perspectives of participants.

3. There is a kind of ‘political’ failure involved in the denigration of language/discourse/textuality in the name of the non-representational. Geographers of a culturalist inclination have spent a decade or more worrying about the ‘symmetry’ between humans and non-humans. In the process, they have managed to forget about the more fundamental ‘symmetry’ that underwrites any such ontological levelling – the symmetry between academic/expert discourse and lay discourse. This is the symmetry at play in Luc Boltanski’s attempt to reconstruct the grounds of critique in social theory; in other terms, it’s also at stake in Andrew Sayer’s otherwise rather austere account of ‘why things matter to people’. John Levi Martin, in what is without doubt the funniest book of grand social theory I have ever read, The Explanation of Social Action, says the following about the suspicion of first-person perspectives in social theory: “Social science rejects the possibility of building on first-person explanations because, to be blunt, it distrusts persons and their cognitions”. Quite. Just because this attitude can come wrapped in protestations of it’s own political significance, sprinkled with avant-garde post-Marxist populism or anti/post-humanist self-righteousness, doesn’t mean that the basic point doesn’t still hold: the disdain shown towards the viewpoints, opinions, perspectives – the words – of ordinary informants in cutting-edge cultural theory these days carries its own political imprint, one which denies the shared, levelled conditions of the very possibility of social science description in its assertion of the self-centred authority of the academic voyeur, freed by theoretical fiat from accountability to the utterances, the contra-dictions, of their research subjects.