10 Things I Miss About Commuting

Since moving from Swindon to Exeter at the end of August, I have filled the car up with petrol only 4 times – rather than the at least three times a week I was used to. That must be good. I am finding it a bit odd to find myself living in the same place as I work in, and I am trying my best to stop thinking it’s really exciting to be able to go into the office at the weekend. I am adjusting to the novel possibility of bumping into one’s colleagues in the supermarket (and of having to dodge one’s students while there too). I am spending more time working in my office, but I also find it difficult to work in silence, and I am aware that you can’t really sit in your office at work with the door open playing Bremen Nacht cranked up to 11 (not, I guess, without upsetting everyone else along the corridor), so I am refining my music tastes, learning to listen softly to Thelonius Monk or Glenn Gould (that’s pretty much the extent of my knowledge of both jazz and classical music).

Amongst these new experiences of a more sedentary lifestyle, there are some things I am finding myself missing about my 2+-hour home-work and 2+hour work-home roundtrips. Mainly, I miss the people who used to accompany me to and from work during the working week:

1). I miss Karina Longworth, who’s You Must Remember This is just the best podcast ever.

2). I miss Courtney Barnett, and Taylor Swift, and Lucinda Williams, and Britt Daniels and all sorts of other people too, who one got to know by listening to whole albums in the car, all the way through from start to finish, as well as those friends one is more ambivalent about but who you only see once a year or so, like Supertramp or Psychedelic Furs, and who are good to listen to every so often, surely.

3). I miss Emily Bazelon, John Dickerson, and David Plotz and the anguished liberalism of Slate’s Political Gabfest.

4). I miss the surprise of meeting old friends, depending on which playlist you happen to choose to put on as you speed down the motorway – could be Tangerine Kitty or Beyoncé or Kristin Hersh.

5). I miss David Remnick and The New Yorker’s Radio Hour.

6). I miss Eddie Mair and others on Radio 4’s PM programme.

7). I miss David Runciman and the Talking Politics podcast.

8). I miss Alec Baldwin and his friends.

9). I miss Adam Buxton (but not as much as I miss Adam and Joe on the radio).

10). And I miss those rare occasions when someone would be there with me in my car reading their own books out loud just to me – Barack Obama reading Dreams of my Father, Donna Tartt reading The Little Friend, and, back in the days of OU-audio on cassettes, Quentin Skinner explaining early modern political thought to me, just to me.  




Democracy Live

I came across an interesting theory blog the other day, called GonePublic, which belongs to Noelle McAfee, and focuses on links between philosophy, political theory and contemporary public life. She has a new book out, which I had not come across before, called Democracy and the Political Unconscious, which I haven’t yet read, but which sounds interesting in its emphasis on the relationships between collectively felt trauma and the challenges of building and sustaining democratic cultures. Her site also has a link to a recently published collection, Democracy in What State?, which includes contributions by some of the grandees of ‘continental-style’ political philosophy – Ranciere, Zizek, Badiou, Agamben, Nancy. Should make interesting reading, given the decided ambivalence about ‘democratic’ values one might impute to at least one or two of these thinkers. And while I am on the subject of things I haven’t read properly yet, there is also an interesting looking essay in Political Studies by Andy Dobson on Democracy and Nature, that thinks through the relevance of Latour’s provocations about nature and democracy by emphasising the importance of practices of listening as well as the well-trodden emphasis on speaking in recent democratic theory.

I stumbled across these references a week or so ago, and remembered them this week while finding myself watching a lot of day-time television, in that zonked-out, sleep-deprived way that one does in the first few days after the birth of a new child. We have sat glued to images of protest and violence in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. I wonder which, if any, of them would be most helpful for understanding what is going on there. Between them, these theoretical works look like they cover the shared terrain of cutting-edge democratic theory these days, which revolves around a couple of intertwined issues: how best to think of the mediums of inclusive democratic politics – in terms of deliberating, representing, and/or other modes of more or less embodied action; and how to square these images of how democratic politics should be best practiced with a more worldly acknowledgement that democracy is rarely founded democratically, but is shaped at its origins often by violence, trauma, and suffering. Of course, there is a style of theorising about ‘the political’ that presents these two sides as standing in a starkly contradictory, or aporetic relationship, so that democracies are always tainted at source by foundational violence. This serves as a way of reconfiguring some quite old-fashioned images of messianic revolution with ideals of democratic politics. Alternatively, there is an Arendtian vision in which the sorts of street protests going on in Egypt this last week or so are examples of a mode of collective, public action that is constitutively opposed to violence and yet is the very source of democratic energies.

Now I don’t know very much about Egypt, and am not inclined to over-interpret events there just for the sake of theoretical point-scoring. But watching these events, distracted by more real personal events and from a distance, I have been struck by how at times like this what you really want is contextual, social-scientific forms of analysis rather than interpretative political theory.  And, it’s also useful to have some sense of how things might be theorised by those more familiar with these contexts than the usual theory-suspects.

One of the riffs this past couple of week about Egypt, and before that about Tunisia, has been about the importance of social media like twitter and facebook in coordinating the protests and collective mobilizations that have shaken authoritarian regimes. To a large extent I think, this sort of emphasis is really an index of a culture of journalism that doesn’t know very much about the places where dramatic news events often take place, and is therefore forced to fall back on a familiar narrative line. Malcolm Gladwell has a neat little blog post on this theme here, in which he points out that the fact that the fact that events in Egypt have been partly shaped by the use of new media might be far down the list of relevant factors worthy of attention. His point is that the fascination with the mediums through which contemporary collective action is made possible, with the ‘how’, tends to distract attention from the content, from the ‘why’ of such action. There is a kind of flattening effect of this sort of news narrative, in so far as it makes political revolutions in Tunisia just another version of half-hearted online petition exercises led by government in the UK or the latest smart viral marketing campaigns of this or that underground pop song. The focus on the medium is not only exaggerated, as Gladwell suggests, but tends to obviate the need for any deeper analysis of why political events like this take place at all – I have actually learnt very little about Egyptian politics after a week of watching blanket news coverage from there.

Of the things I have had time to read on this issue, I enjoyed this piece on why the narrative that paints Egypt in 2011 as potentially a re-run of Iran in 1979 doesn’t hold up really helpful, precisely because it provided a basic outline of the social and organisational context in which these events are unfolding. It reminded me too of an old media studies analysis of the importance of tape cassettes to the Iranian revolution. Maybe each political revolution has its own  iconic ‘new media’ technology?

And the cassettes example isn’t as old sounding as it may appear. The anthropologist Charles Hirschkind has a detailed ethnographic account of the importance of taped sermons in shaping contemporary Islamic public spheres, in The Ethical Soundscape. One reason why this account resonates is that it reminds us that there is more to ‘media’ than just communicating – the ongoing importance of this media technology, in Hirschkind’s account, lies in the practices of self-sustained by a culture of listening, of being devout, of cultivating a particular spiritual and public ethics of life.

Hirschkind’s account of the practices of contemporary public life in Islamic societies like Egypt and Iran suggests a much more nuanced understanding of ‘public space’  than one often finds in spatial disciplines like geography or urban studies, which have a tendency to fetishize ‘real’ public spaces. I suppose the centrality of Tahrir Square to the events in Egypt in the last week might seem to confirm this emphasis. But I wonder. This seems to be an example of a struggle of over a specific site, as a symbolically important location rather than a site of real power, the control of which projects or reaches beyond its coordinates in space. A year or so ago I listened to a talk, at a workshop in Rome on political agency, by the Egyptian academic and activist Heba Raouf Ezzat, who talked about the vibrant but furtive quality of the political public sphere in Egypt. She recommended the work of Asef Bayat, who has written about new ‘post-Islamic’ social movement politics and the ordinariness of political action in the Middle East. Bayat has also written about the figure and reality of ‘the Arab street’, which he reconstructs as a complex of ideas and practices about the force of popular opinion, the fragility of state power, and the calibration of formal political processes to material conditions of life (what Africanist political theorists might call ‘the politics of the belly’). Bayat has updated this analysis of the new Arab street in the last week in relation to events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Between them, these sorts of analyses of the spaces of  political action are helpful in indicating the extent to which democratic energies might be understood as urbanized in certain respects without forcing one to fetishize a particular romantic image of the city as the scene of political life. There is an urbanity to the movements for change in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran and elsewhere, it seems – in so far as they are peopled by labour activists, and professional classes, by women’s organisations, as well as by varieties of religious activism which are resolutely modern in their concerns and maybe often even ‘secular’ in their form. And it seems too there might be something resolutely urbanized about the ‘conjunctural’ factors at work in these recent events – the central importance of economic grievances over unemployment and food prices is indicative of the interplay between spatially extensive infrastructures of provisioning upon which contemporary urban living on the scale of a city like Cairo depends; and more contained, lived and shared experiences of stunted citizenship.

Favourite Thinkers III: David Byrne

I accidently bought David Byrne’s concept album about Imelda Marcus just before Christmas, while out trying to buy gifts for other people. It’s called Here Lies Love, and is co-produced with Fatboy Slim. It’s full of suprisingly good dance songs, with guest lyrics by all sorts of mostly female singers, including favourites such as Kate Pierson and Róisín Murphy. I also read Byrne’s book about cycling and cities in the summer, while on holiday, which is kind of a blog-book, and was actually one of the things that sparked the idea of trying to write a blog myself.  Between them, these two ‘works’ have reminded me of just how much I like David Byrne as a ‘thinker’, and just how important his style of ‘thinking’ might have been in shaping, or confirming, some of my own intellectual inclinations. Talking Heads was the first pop music that I discovered as ‘my own’, in the sense that up to that point (about 1983) I was entirely dependent on listening to things already in the house (my mother’s Neil Diamond record, who I still harbour a soft spot for; my dad’s Johnny Cash album, ditto: David Bowie’s Changes, which both of my sisters’ had copies of, as surely did all sisters who were teenagers in the 1970s; I was less inclined to the Billy Joel, Rush, or Black Sabbath). One of my sisters did in fact send me Talking Heads’ 1983 album, Speaking in Tongues, but alongside albums by Oingo Boingo and X, and without quite knowing what she was doing I think. Talking Heads were my route away from mid-1980s rockism defined by Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, and Marillion, towards a ‘I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside’ world of the Jesus and Mary Chain, That Petrol Emotion, the Cocteau Twins, Pixies, and Throwing Muses.

Anyway, where was I? Talking Heads songs always had this great geographical sensibility, I think – they are about ordinary experiences of places, of living in cities, of travelling, of meeting new people, of being out of place. They are also about the absurdism of these ordinary experiences, of course. I haven’t really followed Byrne avidly since the end of Talking Heads, although the Bicycle Diaries is just one example of how this geographical imagination has continued to flourish in his work since then – it is part of a serious engagement with issues of contemporary urbanism he is involved in. I do sometimes tune in to his radio station – he posts a monthly play list on his  website, of more or less coherently themed songs – sometimes this contains things I am already familiar with, sometimes it opens up new musical avenues to explore, or not.

I’m not sure if pop songs are meant to count as intellectual influences – and I suppose Byrne is one of those people of whom it could be claimed that they are not really ‘pop’, since his work from Talking Heads and on has always been more or less ‘arty’. On the other hand, I remember once having a conversation with a cultural geographer interested in geography and music, who was quite disdainful of my response of ‘Talking Heads’ to his question about whether there was any popular music that was ‘geographical’ (this was a drunken conversation late at night at a party). On his understanding, ‘popular music’ really meant some sort of quasi-organic, placed-based more-or-less-folk music that evaded commercialization. Oh well. I still think that Byrne is ‘pop’, not least in having a sense of wonder for the potentials of commercialised public culture. But I’m not sure I either can or should seek to intellectualise about the sort of pop culture he produces, or why it matters to me.

Slow Work in Progress

I have been on leave the last couple of weeks, though not quite on holiday. I’ve been decorating various rooms of our house, sanding walls, filling holes, painting. So I have been in the house for two weeks, apart from forays to Swindon’s enormous B&Q for supplies. I have ended up listening to an awful lot of radio as a result, which has become a project in itself. There is BBC Radio 6 of course, thankfully saved, but actually quite difficult to listen to all day – too much ‘mortgage indie’. Oddly, I did end up listening to 4 days of county championship cricket, an unexpectedly exciting end of season round of games – I can’t ever remember first class county cricket being broadcast on the radio, but digital radio makes is possible. I suppose, when I think of it, this wasn’t really broadcasting, not even narrowcasting, rather something like sliver-casting.

Between these delights, I have been catching up with some favourite podcasts, or experimenting with some new ones. I usually only listen to these in the car on the way to work, and over the summer haven’t really kept up the habit. I first started listening to podcasts regularly in 2008, during the US Presidential election, and it’s election time again in the US, so I have been listening to various things to keep up – Slate’s weekly Political Gabfest is fun in an anguished liberal sort of way, and there are now a couple of podcasts which provide regular highlights from progressive/liberal radio and TV in the US – the Best of the Left podcast, and Democracy Now! I have also discovered Stephanie Miller, who is a bit like John Stewart on speed, without the pretence of exasperated moderation. More soberly, The New Yorker has a great weekly podcast The Political Scene, and The Nation’s Chris Hayes has a regular podcast The Breakdown. These provide my sources for up to date analysis of the currently ever more bizarre world of US politics. There isn’t anything I know of which does the same sort of thing in the UK – The Guardian’s Politics Weekly is very good, but in general this medium of public debate doesn’t seem well developed in the UK. Maybe because we don’t have a madly partisan media scene. Yet.

These sorts of podcasts work well because they have a regular rhythm to them, updated daily or weekly, and none of them is too long – an hour or so at most, for the ‘magazine’ style podcasts. The other podcasts I have been listening to these last couple of weeks, and which I sometimes listen to in the car, are more resolutely academic. I feel I should listen to these ones more often than I do, but actually after two weeks of trying, I have decided that many of them do not really suit the ‘medium’ of the podcast as well as they might. There are some exceptions, but these prove the rule – Philosophy Bites, which consists of short, 15 minutes or so of interviews with philosophers talking big philosophy – Pat Churchland on ‘eliminative materialism’ , Galen Strawson on conceptions of the self. Nigel Warburton and David Edmonds, who host Philosophy Bites,  have an interesting podcast about podcasting here. The OU also has a great list of podcasts, some of which are bespoke course materials, some of which are ready-made for iTunesU. These shows work because they are relatively short, and often take the form of the interview or round-table discussion. There are some longer ones – Canadian educational broadcaster TVO has Big Ideas, which seems to be mainly lectures by academics – I listened this week to a great talk by the late Gerry Cohen, using Olivia Newton-John to elaborate on his distinctively radical understanding of conserving existing values, and Toby Miller laying out a great agenda for studying the environmental impacts of cultural practices. Australian public radio has The Philosopher’s Zone, which is more interview based. And Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosopher’s Magazine, has a magazine style monthly podcast as well.

These podcasts all work well. I’m not so sure about all of the stuff you can access on iTunes mind. Lots of the content available on iTunesU seems to be there for promotional or recruitment purposes, without a lot of thought being put in to making material interesting. The OU has a big presence on iTunesU [I’m even on it], but this material is well produced with an eye to the nature of the medium being used. On the other hand, while you can download lots of famous people talking and lecturing from UC Berkeley or Oxford, much of this material is just recordings of seminars or lectures, which means that you don’t get the benefit of any visual aids people might be using, and the overall lesson I learnt from two weeks of trying to listen to these sorts of podcasts was that the academic lecture, as a communication form, really is pretty dysfunctional.

One of the first things I listened to over the course of my two weeks of decorating was David Byrne on TEDTalks, reflecting on how far different styles of music are generated in symbiotic relationship with the architectural spaces of performance, recording, and listening. I think you might extend the same sort of idea to thinking about how well different styles of talk-heavy analysis – of news, cinema, or philosophical concepts – translate to platforms that are beyond-radio, as it were. Lectures work in so far as they literally have a captive and immobile audience. But the academic podcasts which work are shorter, less analytical, and tend to work more as ‘tasters’ than substitutes for reading – they are better attuned to the spaces and rhythms in which one might find oneself listening to them, in the car, or standing on a ladder with a paint brush in your hand.

Back to work now – writing/reading/thinking work, that is, not painting/listening work.

What happens in Vegas…

I feel a little like I have been ‘on tour’ for the last year or so. Since February 2009, I have presented papers at conferences, workshops or seminars in Zurich, Las Vegas, Manchester, Rome, Utrecht, Bristol, Stockholm, and Singapore. This sounds like the sort of itinerary ripe for parody along the lines of a David Lodge novel, but none of these has felt like a junket. In fact, because of relatively new childcare responsibilities that have befallen me, none of these trips involved more than four nights away from home – Las Vegas was three nights in a hotel and a trans-Atlantic overnight flight. This means that I haven’t really much of an answer when someone asks ‘What did you make of Singapore?’, because I wasn’t there long enough to even enter into the speeded-up fieldtrip to which geographers inevitably reduce any and all international conference experience. I can tell you, though, what I made of the International Communication Association (‘the ICA’), or at least the slice of if I attended. Which might seem obvious, but my point is that doing conferences in this way makes you really focus in on what it is that these sorts of gatherings are good for intellectually.

What have I learnt? Well, for a start, I have been reminded of just how much of my own serious academic reading is itinerant, as it were, done on the move, in the interstices between other activities which impose themselves on you more strongly. Travelling makes this very evident, although it’s not the only occasion when such opportunities arise – the only proper philosophy book I have read from cover to cover in the last four years is John McDowell’s Mind and World, which I read over the course of a week in January 2007 while sitting up in the early hours of the morning waiting for a very small infant to wake up and demand a bottle-feed. But travelling on buses, trains, and airplanes is, and has always been for me, an important occasion for learning, because of the amount of ‘dead time’ there is to fill (since I started driving to work, in 2003, I have felt this all the more, since driving a car is really not conducive to reading difficult theory; I have managed to listen to the podcast of Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture course on Heidegger while zooming along the A420, but I’m not so sure much of it really stuck).

I have also learnt, or re-learnt, the oddities of ‘disciplinarity’. In Rome, I took part in an intensive workshop, funded by an EU grant of some sort, in which most of the other participants came from Politics departments, but turned out to have far greater ‘intra-disciplinary’ hang-ups (between political theorists and IR scholars, between the normative and the empirical, for example) than one finds in geography. So here, I was very definitely The Geographer, which was a bit strange. This event was a great social experience; we all experienced three nights of detailed tutoring in how to eat Italian food properly. This sounds like a terrible, Lodge-like cliché, but actually this was an important aspect of making this event work, for me at least: we were spending the days discussing pre-circulated papers, each of which had a designated discussant, with a view to working the dozen or so pieces into chapters for an edited collection. This is difficult to pull off amongst people who have never met each other before. It was important to spend some time with one’s fellow workshoppers, if only as a sort of coercive force of academic propriety – it is difficult to either rip to shreds someone else’s paper, or to be too quick to take offense by critical remarks on one’s own, if you have to sit next to them choosing sugary desserts a few hours later.

I do have to say that it has been amongst folks from Politics, broadly thought of, that I have experienced the most disciplinary clunkiness over the last year, in the sense of being positioned most clearly as coming from the outside, as a Geographer. In Utrecht, shortly before Christmas, I attended a workshop on media and cosmopolitanism, which was actually more diverse than the Rome event, including film theorists, legal theorists, political philosophers, and sociologists. But in this company, I didn’t seem an oddity – I suspect people working on media issues are much more used to coming across, and stealing from, other disciplinary perspectives. Or, to put the contrast differently, I suspect the ‘disciplinarity’ of some disciplines is much more internally cohesive than some others – fields like development studies, media studies, geography, or urban and regional studies are, certainly, definable fields and disciplines, but what might account for their observable outlines are the settled patterns of exchange, borrowing and external influence which characterise them. This sense was underscored by my brief time in Singapore, at the ICA conference. I felt quite at home at the ICA, or at least the bits I attended – I had been invited on the assumption that I could talk to other scholars interested in media, culture, democracy, neoliberalism, that sort of thing, and we shared the same reference points, the same sensibilities. I heard some great papers, and actually felt more at home than I sometimes do in critical human geography – people here were talking about Robert Brandom (not kindly), Axel Honneth (much more kindly), and there was a great session on the theme of listening as a medium of public communication and democracy (see http://www.thelisteningproject.net/). One of the things I most enjoyed about the ICA was the sense that a bunch of the people in the sessions I was involved in were struggling to find ways out of some fairly staid, predictable, disabling styles of doing academic ‘critique’ – ways of being critical which remain rather resolutely entrenched in ‘critical human geography’, where too many people seem satisfied with a shared sense that we all already know what we don’t like.

So my conferencing has, over the last year or so, been much more concentrated than in the past, but this has helped me appreciate how much serious work goes on in these events, as well as reminding me of just where I feel most comfortable. And I have, more or less inadvertently, managed to pick up one or two things about ‘local’ customs along the way, despite my tight schedule. For the Utrecht trip, I arrived in early Christmas, and didn’t immediately register that the airport at Schiphol seemed to be full of people in ‘blackface’, dressed as vaguely seasonal-looking minstrels. This turns out to be Zwarte Piet, a Dutch (and Flemish) sidekick to the proper St. Nicholas (not Santa Claus). The Dutch celebrate St. Nicholas’ day on the 5th and 6th December, so here we all were, gathered to discuss cosmopolitanism, media, and representation (with appropriate references to Deleuze, Boltanski, Derrida), amidst this big national celebration replete with racist caricatures (on one interpretation, at least). Opinion amongst the participants seemed a bit divided – the guy who ran the fantastic radical bookshop which hosted a book launch the night I arrived (De Rooie Rat) had played Zwarte Piet at his kids school that afternoon, and defended doing so on the grounds that ‘the kids really love him’. Which was kind of disarming, actually. I wonder if Dutch people arriving in England on November 5th wonder why we are all engaging in anti-Catholic rituals involving burning human figures on the top of bonfires.

Zwarte Piet was a surprising challenge to certain presumptions about liberal Dutch culture. I’m not sure I was as outraged as one or two of the local academics expected; rather, my response was along the lines of “Really? Still!”.

I had an equally surprising encounter, but of a different sort, in Las Vegas, where I was attending the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (‘The AAG’). This is the biggest gathering of English-language academic geography, and it’s a big, proper US-style scientific conference (although also oddly anarchic in its organisation). I actually found Las Vegas to be a terrible conference location – no coffee shops to escape to, where one can revise and rehearse the paper you are meant to give later in the week. I did have one great encounter, but it was in the shuttle bus back to the airport on the morning I left to come home. The shuttle turned out to have a ‘limo’-style interior, complete with a pole-dancing pole – obviously trips to the airport were not the only thing this vehicle was used for. All the other passengers on board for my trip to the airport were women, and there were a few raised eyebrows about the pole as we boarded. But these remarks had a certain knowingness about them, and as the ride started, these women, a dozen or so ordinary, ‘middle class’ Americans, entered into an extended conversation about what they had learnt in their week in Las Vegas. They all seemed to either know one another, or to be part of the same organisation. And their conversation consisted of a weird combination of matter-of-fact business talk about sales figures and future projections, and, well, sex toys. Now, I am actually quite shy, but as this conversation developed around me, I felt obliged to ask just what it was these women did. It turns out they were all reps for Passion Parties, which is the US’s largest ‘sensual products’ party plan company – these women had been attending the annual conference, the company being based in Las Vegas. Technically, I think the women I was sharing the shuttle with are ‘Consultants’ – they arrange, and sometimes host, women-only parties where, well, ‘sensual products’ are sold. In the UK, Ann Summers, the high street sex toy and lingerie shop, has a roughly equivalent line of business (apparently). These women, on my shuttle, had a great analysis of the geographies of their corner of the economy – during the ride, it was established that selling products in the South took a lot longer than in California – ladies in the Bible Belt passion-partied at a more leisurely pace than those on the West Coast, it was agreed. These women also had a complex analysis of the uncertainty of their business in a recession – couples would be staying in more in the evenings in economically straightened times. But they were also aware that they might find themselves adjusting downwards their own expectations of what people could afford in tough times, risking ‘underselling’. They also all agreed that a tighter economy risked heightening the tension they all felt that they had to negotiate, between engaging with the women who attended their parties as both friends and customers.

This was one of those encounters that had me wondering for a moment if there wasn’t a research project to be done on the economic and cultural geographies of Passion Parties. Then I thought better of it. I’m not sure I believe any more that critical social science is really equal to the sort of understanding that phenomenon like Zwarte Piet and Passion Parties really require. That would entail having a theory of fun.