Public Life in a Provincial Town

After 8 years, the imminent departure from Swindon by the end of the summer now looms on the horizon. This blog has been very much shaped by the experience of living in this non-University town, and while here, living in a very Respectable Street, I’ve written a book, acquired a second child, lost a second parent, been promoted, got a new job, but not quite turned 50.

Swindon, of course, has a certain sort of reputation as ‘a dump’, which is not quite fair, and even if it is, given the representative significance of Swindon in the history of British society, it’s no more of a dump than the rest of the country. Aroundaboutz, of course, in the surrounding countryside populated by plenty of Generals and Majors, there are all sorts of attractions, if you like White Horses and stones circles and if you can survive on a Farmboy’s Wages. And it’s not too far away from the Towers of London, if you fancy a day trip. But that’s still underselling Swindon itself, which has quite a few treasures all of its own. It’s a good place to visit if you like railway museums, odd art deco treasures, or want to trace the origins of the NHS. In the time I have lived here, one can trace the diminution of the public realm under the pressure of austerity, felt in the absence of Sure Start centres, libraries, bus services, and nurseries that were the elements of our daily life when we first moved here. But actually, a life here isn’t just the privatised experience of a New Town Animal in a Furnished Cage. There are things worth getting out and about for. You could even spend half a day on a self-made Diana Dors walking tour, culminating perhaps at Swindon’s very own answer to the Statue of Liberty.

So should you ever find yourself stuck here and in need of entertainment, or indeed if you find yourself Making Plans to pass close by, here is my personal guide to the best 10 things that public life in Swindon offers to you:

1). Top of the list is the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. A quite extraordinary place, mainly for the art collection (not to the mention the crocodile or the Mummy).

2). Town Gardens. A place for kids to play, the site of the best annual(ish) South Asian festival I’ve ever been to, and a place where sometimes, if you look carefully, you can catch a glimpse of the Mayor of Simpleton wandering around.

3). No public sphere is possible, as old uncle Habermas reminds us, without a thriving commercial life to sustain it. The Swindon Designer Outlet shopping centre might not sound much, but even if you don’t like shopping, go there – it’s in the remaining part of the Great Western railways works, so it’s like walking through a portal into the historical geography of the town.

4). And, still with Habermas, you need coffee shops too – visit Baila, a little slice of cosmopolitanism in Old Town. At nighttime, it might well be true that Life Begins at the Hop, but it should end here, in a Crowded Room full of discerning gin drinkers. By day, it’s a haven for home-workers happy to listen to acid jazz and not-so-obvious Motown.

5). Los Gatos, or just ‘the Spanish’, a small slice of authentic British ex-pat Tapas in Wiltshire, this was the ONLY nice place when we moved here, but now it is like a trusted old friend you know will always be there when other things disappoint. Great coffee.

6). The Arts Centre. Swindon has a proper, big theatre, The Wyvern, which is also worth a visit (especially for Jon Richardson’s ‘returning home’ gigs), but the Arts Centre is another little hidden gem, a place to see Am-Dram performances of The Crucible or watch Mark Thomas or see foreign films or listen to Thea Gilmore.

7). Swindon is a very sporty town, with a disappointing football team embedded in the community in all sorts of commendable ways, Speedway, and best of all, Ice Hockey. Go Wildcats! It’s just like Canada.

8). There are various things to do at Coate Water park, but the best one is to take a ride on the miniature railway – because it’s Swindon, so you have to find a way of riding on a steam train.

9). The Old Town Railway Path. Yes, yes, I know, it turns out that almost everything on the list is related to railways, but if you need a walk, this is great – this is another bit of historical geography, a disused railway cutting that overlooks the ‘The Front Garden’ between Swindon and the M4, now the site of a major new housing development, and gives you a view in the distance of the Science Museum‘s large-object store at Wroughton, and if you like Rock, you can even see some exposed Upper Jurassic geological formations (apparently). Certainly a place to get your Senses Working Overtime.

10). Oh, and then there is the musical heritage – you don’t even have to come here to experience any of this, but all of it makes so much more sense if you’ve lived here. This is Pop.




Almost Famous

jhbThe Sociological Review blog has a series of articles on what it calls Superstar Professors, including commentaries on thinkers such as Zizek, Giddens, and Bauman. There are some interesting thoughts raised in the posts published so far, including reflections on the relationship between MOOCs and academic celebrity, and on the relevance of recent debates in the sociology of ideas (the work of Cimic, Gross, and Baert for example) in accounting for the ‘success’ of certain strands of thought.

There is, though, a rather predictable tone to these pieces, in which the apparent ‘rise’ of ‘star authors’ is taken as a sign of standards of ‘scholarship and intellectual quality’ being undermined by the unfortunate pressures of commerce and the market. It’s actually a recurrent problem of trying to analyse seriously the relationship between ‘thought’ and its conditions, this temptation to fall back on a style of evaluation in which one identifies the instrumental and strategic calculations that shape academic life in an act of disapproving exposure.

I have an amateurish interest in these things, partly related to some current thinking about how to research the living histories of ideas, partly as a more general interest in understanding cultures of theory. Long ago, Murray Low and I wrote a paper in which we tried to conceptualise the relationship between what was then called French Theory and the changing dynamics of academic publishing (in the interim, one might be inclined to extend the analysis to investigating the formation over the last two decades of ‘Continental Philosophy’ as the name for a serious, canonical field of intellectual curiosity, as distinct from a term of abuse). Slightly less long ago, I also did some work on the complex relations between commercial dynamics, public institutions, and cultures of aesthetic evaluation that shaped the formation of a canon of post-colonial African literary writing.

I tend now to think of those projects as part of a wider, long standing interest in understanding the variable formation of public life. One thing I take for granted, on the basis of things learnt from these projects certainly, but it’s also a pretty basic feature of any decent account of the concept of the public sphere, is that the relationship between public life and markets, public life and commercial practices, public life and processes of exchange, is an internal, constitutive, and integral one. Contradictory, no doubt, often tragic in a Habermasian kind of way, but nevertheless, a type of relationship which requires a rather more careful style of analysis than the one provided by simple claims that the standards of intellectual life are menaced by such worldly matters. 



On the milieu of security: Paper and discussion in Dialogues in Human Geography

IMG_0167I have a piece newly published in Dialogues in Human Geography, grandly titled ‘On the milieu of security: Situating the emergence of new spaces of public action‘. As that may or may not indicate, it is a discussion of different ways in which issues of security are discussed in various fields of critical social science. It is one attempt to think through how ideas of problematization might re-cast the self-image of ‘critique’ in left theory, or at least, to elaborate further on two very different ways of doing things with Foucault (I’m sure there are more than tw0).

The formula for this new-ish journal is that lead articles are published alongside a series of commentaries. My interlocutors were Ben Anderson, Anne-Marie D’Aoust, Matt Hannah, Jess Pykett, William Walters, and, David Murakami Wood. And then there is response (‘The Scandal of Publicity‘) to their comments. It’s an interesting process, and I would have loved to write more in response to the commentaries, partly for clarification inevitably, but also because different people raised all sorts of issues I have lots to say about as well (like concepts of attention).

As with lots of my publications recently, this one was not so much planned as arising out of an invitation to think about a topic I didn’t know I was meant to know about. It dates back to a conference in Ottawa more than three years ago on the theme of Security and its Publics (organised by two of the commentators mentioned above, William and Anne-Marie). Efforts to publish a collection of the papers from the event fell foul of some rather shoddy practices from journal editors (not in geography, I should hasten to add). The turnaround for the piece in Dialogues, from submission to full publication, has been less than a year, which is remarkable considering that it involved not just getting referees for the original submission but also a whole bunch of coherent commentaries too. William and Anne-Marie have also published a piece which addresses some of the issue raised at the event, on the theme of ‘Bringing publics in critical security studies‘.

Here’s the abstract for my lead piece:

“Critical analysis of security presents processes of securitization as sinister threats to public values such as accountability, inclusion and transparency. By questioning some of the theoretical premises of this view of the milieu of security, it is argued that practices of securitization might be understood less as an assertive medium for the constitution of the social field and more as a responsive mode of problematization of the temporalities of concerted public action. The argument proceeds in stages. First, two ways in which publicness is figured in the critique of security are identified and the spatiality of securitization associated with them elaborated. Second, this view of the spatiality of securitization is then linked to two modes of temporality that apparently define the historical novelty of contemporary security practices. It is argued that uncovering the pernicious politics of security depends on identifying putative subject effects sought and achieved by programmes of rule. In contrast to this approach, an alternative inflection of the genealogical perspective on security is identified. This inflection seeks to diagnose problematizations to which security initiatives are a response, suggesting a reorientation of critical attention to investigating the reconfiguration of public life around various temporal registers of uncertainty, adjustment and repair. The article closes by arguing that the specific public values at stake in securitization should be given more credence.”

Public Seminar

I have just noticed, being a bit slow, a new on-line writing initiative, Public Seminar: I came across it checking out the latest from Jeff Goldfarb’s Deliberately Considered. Better late, etc. The editorial board includes people such as Nancy Fraser, Eli Zaretsky, and Simon Critchley. Best of all, it promises not just lots of interesting writing, but it also has an Index. A brilliant innovation for our digital age (please note, Bruno Latour). Here’s the pitch:

Confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day, using the broad resources of social research, we seek to provoke critical and informed discussion by any means necessary.

We use short form posts and long form essays, audio and video reports and discussions, and links to provocative materials of critical public interest anywhere we can find them. We are committed to creating a distinctive intellectual community, suspicious of clichés, informed by diverse experiences, theoretically heterodox, politically plural, worldly.

We work in the tradition of critical scholarship and public engagement of the original New School for Social Research (1919) and its University in Exile (1933). We seek to open the discussion of experts to broader publics, in the United States, and crucially far beyond, in the tradition of Charles Beard, John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, Emil Lederer, Max Wertheimer, Frieda Wunderlich, Hans Speier, Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt.

Public Seminar is an extension of The New School’s legendary “General Seminar,” founded by the original exile scholars. Through it, we are constituting a public seminar for the 21st century.

Introducing Human Geographies

IHGI have just received my copy of the new, 3rd edition of Introducing Human Geographies, “the leading guide to Human Geography for undergraduate students”. Technically, not published ’til 2014, but perhaps available in the better bookshops in time for Christmas. In the second edition, published in 2005, I wrote a chapter under the Issues sub-section with the title ‘Who cares?‘. This time, I have a chapter in the Horizons sub-section on ‘How to think about public space‘. This chapter is actually the first published piece in which I attempt to outline some of my own thinking about publicness that came out of an ESRC project on the theme of Emergent Publics which finished a while ago now…. I’m not sure an undergraduate textbook is necessarily the best place to try to articulate the fuzzy research agenda that I thought might have ’emerged’ from that project, but I suppose it might be a good way of catching the next generation early. Only time will tell.

Arts of the Political by Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift: Review

A&TMy review of Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Arts of the Political: New Openings for the Left has just been published on Antipode’s online Book Review page.  There is also a (shorter) review of the same book by Fred Inglis in the Times Higher. And the Mobilizing Ideas blog had a post about it a while ago too, in case you missed it (and are interested in these things).