2014 Top Ten: Fun Books

IMG_2978Sometimes, in addition to the books I read for work, I also read things for less instrumental reasons, almost for pleasure, although the boundary is a bit fuzzy (in both directions). This is a list not so much of ‘best books’ of the year, more a list of the books associated with my favourite book-buying/book-reading experiences of the year.

1). Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacationbecause this is the kind of holiday I would like to take.

2). Let’s Talk About Love, by Carl Wilson, which is the best, and probably only, book about Celine Dion I am ever going to read.

3). Double Negative by Ivan Vladislavicmy favourite writer-whose-books-you-can-only-seem-to-buy-in-South-Africa.

4). The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll: Collected Music Writings 2005-09, by Robert Forster. I bought this for a couple of quid in Bristol, not knowing that he wrote music criticism, and discovered some new things to listen to as a result; I almost cried when reading his appreciation of co-Go Between, Grant McLennan.

5). James Salter’s Last Nightshort stories, no sentence of which can be read quickly, really good for reading in the bath.

6). Michael Tomasky’s Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, my first e-book, I read this in one sitting on a flight to New York city. There were not screaming crowds awaiting my arrival.

7). Gideon Haigh’s Ashes to Ashes. I have come to dislike most things about cricket, leaving one or two pleasures at the edges, like Mike Selvey in The Guardian, and Vic Marks on the radio, and Gideon Haigh; this is really only a collection of his daily newspaper columns of the 10 Ashes Tests of 2013-2014.

8). The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Volumes 1, 2, and 3, by Robert Caro. This is a cheat, since I haven’t actually read all three of these this year, but I have been dipping in and out of each one, having read the fourth volume a couple of Christmas’s ago, and then seeing Bryan Cranston play LBJ in All the Way in March. The Bluecoat second-hand bookshop in Liverpool has had these three volumes sitting around for years, so I finally succumbed and got the lot for £20, a bargain).

9). The Portlandia Cook Book. I’ll give this a try, but nothing with pickles.

10). Simon Critchley’s Memory Theatre. I read this in two sittings, to and from Disneyland Paris on Eurostar, which seems appropriate in all sorts of ways.

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Bite Size Theory: The Ethics of Deconstruction

“Democracy is a fragile, agnostic, doxic form of political life, where fragility is the price to be paid for the refusal of all forms of immanentism. Democracy is the politics of difficulty, opacity, and dirty hands, of the fact that the social is not a complete, transparent oeuvre, that political action is always taken on an open, undecidable terrain.”

Simon Critchley, 1992, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas, Blackwell.

Where can I find real democracy?

Simon Critchley has a short piece in The Guardian today, on the lessons and future of the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring. It argues that these events show us that ‘true politics’ involves two things – ‘a demand that flows from the perception of injustice’; and ‘a location where that demand is articulated’. There is, he concludes, therefore ‘no poitics without location’.

I’m interested in this sort of argument, and its appeal to these contemporary events, because they resonate with some of my own intellectual predispositions, yet I find something troubling about them (I’ve been trying to express some of the worries while e-chatting recently with Mark Purcell at Paths to the Possible about some of these things). I like the idea that politics, of the sort we like at least, democratic-y politics of a more or less radical sort, arises from a ‘felt sense of injustice’ as Honneth puts it somewhere, and have been trying to write about this idea and how it might be used to think about the relationships between democracy, place and space. So I keep writing papers which have titles like ‘locating democracy’, but the point of them is that actually (democractic) politics doesn’t have a location at all, it’s dispersed across different spaces; it might not even have a proper relation to any specific spatial figure of whatever sort.

Critchley’s piece is just one example of a range of academic commentaries which tend to repeat fairly uncritically the self-representation of activists about the political forms of Occupy, Indignados, and other movements – that these really are the emobodiment of a genuine re-birth of direct, consensual democracy stripped of the parasitical intrusions of representative politics. That’s what ‘real democracy’ turns out to mean.

I think it should be possible to affirm one’s solidarity with these movements without necessarily reiterating these claims without question. It should be possible to analyse the rhetoric and practice of anti-representation in these movements – ‘no parties, no banners’ – as a phenomenon worthy of investigation, not just present such claims as a matter of fact. Jodi Dean and Jason Jones have a really interesting piece on the question of how to think representation in relation to OWS, and it’s one of the few things of it’s sort that I can think of (it’s part of a special edition on the topic of ‘in defence of representation’). I’ve just started reading Pierre Rosanvallon’s Democratic Legitimacy, and it seems to me, for example, that these movements might fit quite well into his genealogy of the emergence of new modes of democratic legtimacy based on values of proximity and presence – my point being that what is required is an analytic imagination that can recognise the emergence of new forms without simply reproducing simplistic dualisms between direct and representative democracy which, while politically effective perhaps, don’t have much interpretative purchase if you think about it for a moment.

Back to Critchley; his piece starts out with a standard narrative device, we’ve all done it: power, as the ability to get things done, has become spatially divorced from politics, the means of getting things done (a globalization cliché he draws from Bauman). Well, maybe, maybe not, but even if this were the case, it would seem to require some thought about how poloitics can be re-spatialised to match the scaling up of power – an argument made by various traditions of thought, including plenty of geographers, and a staple of David Held-style cosmopolitanism. This is easier said than done in theory and practice no doubt, and the diagnosis might just be flawed anyway. But what I’m not sure about is whether Critchley’s conclusion from his starting point follows at all – that the divorce means we need to think about ‘true politics’ in terms of the figure of location. Something seems to get to go astray in the reasoning that starts by saying that power and politics have become too distant from one another and end up by saying that the most effective response is to take a stand in one place (after all, the most interesting aspect of these movements might well be not their ‘occupation’ strategies per se, but the movement of the strategies – that’s why they are called movements).

The attachment to location seems to have something to do with Critchley’s chosen view of contemporary protest movements as embodying values of directness, horizontality, assembly – it’s just one example I think of more general intellectual ‘moment’ in which the idea of true politics and real democracy has become associated with an image of the spaces of politics and democracy as real, physical places of co-presence and gathering together.

If one goes back to Critchley’s point about demands and injustice, then the figure of location seems, again, not to be quite adequate. If demands need to be articulated, then I’m not sure they need a location at all – a specific point, a localisation in space and time. They are, after all, articulated – a demand has a spatiality that is open to connection, combination, joining up. Not one of punctual presence or location. The space of demands generated by injustice is strung out, not gathered together.

Which doesn’t mean that ‘real spaces’ aren’t important. I just think it might be better to think of these spaces of demonstration as enacting a demonstrative force that is better thought of in terms, say, of the idea of spaces of address developed by Kurt Ivesen‘s work on public space. Or of locations as starting places, temporary stopping points. Which might well be move akin to the political geography of ‘occupying’. Even then, though, there might be pause for thought – Crtitchley ends with a call to move on and apply the force of this ‘true politics’ to the London Olympics, a recommendation which might well suggest a form of politics reduced to the purely tactical, tracking the eventalization of the world wrought by spectacular capital with events of its own. So much for getting things done.

And one final thought – Critchley is one of my favourite thinkers, his book on ethics and deconstruction was a fundamental influence on my thinking as a graduate student. It’s one place, though not the first (that was an essay by Nancy Fraser) where I remember learning about the importance of Claude Lefort to a whole strand of French thought that at that time was still being rudely called postmodern. I just wonder, remembering those things I learnt from reading Critchley back then, whether an analysis of true politics and real democracy that rests on the idea that power and politics have become divorced hasn’t lapsed into a certain sort of romantic amnesia about which it should really know better. Conceptually, normatively, the idea that power and politics should be married together, as it were, might be only rather ambivalently ‘democratic’, at best. Which isn’t to say that they should be separated, it’s just that what matters is the quality of the relationship. And conceptualising that relationship, its optimum shape, needs better analysis than can be provided by claims about the importance of location or the form of ‘true politics’.

A history of violence

Progressive Geographies  provides a link to a new site exploring the Histories of Violence, a project which goes live next week on the tenth anniversary of 9/11. On a related theme, Erica Chenoweth’s blog Rational Insurgent  provides a detailed resource for thinking about nonviolent politics (a detailed overview of the practice of nonviolent politics and civil resistance is provided by the edited volume Civil Resistance and Power Politics). Chenoweth has an interesting piece in Foreign Policy examining the relevance of this strand of thought and action in the context of the Arab Spring. I suspect her argument would not convince Zizek, who used the riots in the UK last month to reiterate the broad argument about political violence he has been making for some time now.  Zizek’s piece, with its impatience towards deliberating, self-organising protesters and its longing for “a strong body able to reach quick decisions and to implement them with all necessary harshness”, reiterates the themes raised by the ‘debate‘ between Zizek and Simon Critchley a couple of years ago about how to think about the relationship between violence and non-violence in ethics and politics (most of the discussion was from Critchley, certainly all of the interesting thinking). Hamid Dabashi provides a smart and succinct riposte to Zizek’s most recent anaysis.