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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Urban discontents

boatsThere has been a flurry of interest in the theme of ‘planetary urbanization’ recently. Andy Merrifield has an essay on the theme of ‘Whither urban studies’, and there is a longer published version of his argument about the contemporary fate of the old-fashioned sounding ‘urban question’ (and Andrew has a new book coming out on all this too, The Politics of the Encounter). There is a video of the workshop discussion of the same theme at theurbanfix. This post also includes a link to a lecture by Neil Brenner on similar themes, re-posing ‘the urban question’ as ‘the urbanization question’ – and outlining some themes from a paper on planetary urbanisation by Brenner and Christian Schmid in a recent collection, Urban Constellations, edited by Matthew Gandy.

My interest in these interventions arises both from some things I have been trying to work on (teach, mainly), and also because I am meant to give a paper in a session at the 2013 Association of American Geographers meeting in a set of sessions on the future of critical urban theory. Reading and watching these and other things are helping me to clarify what it is I might try to say then.

There are some interesting overlaps in the arguments being made across this range of ‘post-Lefebvrian’ urban theory (I just made that up). There is the gesture of noting and then taking one’s distance from the oft-repeated line about ‘more than half the world’s population’ now living in cities, or at least in some type of urban settlement. It’s no doubt sensible to pause awhile about such stylized facts (although the stats about urban population growth might be better thought of along the lines suggested recently by David Runciman in LRB, as representations that enable certain sorts of political work to get done, not just as data to be dismissed as empiricist distractions). The distance-taking involves a move towards a claim about what urban theory can and should do, negatively and positively. It should definitely not, it turns out, presume the adequacy of taken-for-granted, ‘positivist’ understandings of what a city is, or of what counts as an urban settlement more generally – that risks buying into not only out of date notions, but ‘ideological’ ones too. What urban theory should do is burrow down into the ontological – to define clearly what the object of analysis of what-used-to-be-called- ‘urban studies’ actually is, in all its multiplicity-yet-dialectical-unity. It’s not at all clear why any intellectual field needs this sort of philosophically underwritten definitional clarity – other than as a prop to cope with a lack of confidence.

Don’t get me wrong – I think the arguments going on here are, in terms of their content as it were, really interesting: Brenner and Schmid’s theme of concentrated and extended urbanization processes is a really neat way of capturing the dynamics of contemporary spatial processes; Andy Merrifield has a really interesting riff about thinking of so many urban attributes (but I’m not sure we need to think of these as all an expression of a singular substance).

BEIn general, the story seems to be that we should think in terms of processes, maybe practices and strategies too, rather than fixed entities like ‘cities’ or discrete spatial objects like ‘the urban’. I suppose. This is a not unfamiliar argument of course, one made around issues of scale, for example, or indeed pretty much any other concern touched by Theory – personal identity, the state, Capital. I wonder whether this is really all that exciting any more as a claim about what theory can do for us. It is actually rather odd to assume that one needs theory to gain insight into the made-up, enacted, assembled, contingent, flow-like qualities of things that we often talk about and experience as if they were thing-like. And if theory is given this special privilege in the register of revelation, attached to a claim about its ‘political’ significance, then there is a risk of missing some important dimensions about the ordinary ways in which things (cities, states, people-with-identities) configure our lives in manageable, responsible ways (it also risks buying into some hoary modernist notions that somehow ordinary language isn’t quite adequate to capture the processual and relational qualities of live; it is, of course, perfectly adequate for that task, that’s why we have words like ‘process’ and ‘relation’ in the first place, and verbs, stuff like that).

It’s easy to pick holes in definitions of ‘the urban’. If you spend enough time looking at these definitions, you can come away thinking that you are in the middle of a Borgesian fiction, social-science style. Urban can mean:

‘Localities of 200 more inhabitants’ (Greenland); ‘Agglomerations of 2500 or more inhabitants, generally having population densities of 1000 persons per square mile or more’ (USA); ‘Towns, that is, localities legally established as urban’ (Bulgaria); or just ‘Town of Stanley’ (Falkand Islands(Malvinas)).

Borges’ lesson about the arbitrariness of classification was, of course, that the seemingly arbitrary qualities of classifications which lack definitive clarity are best read as an index of specific practical purposes and plans.  I suppose, then, that doubts about the adequacy of some concepts of the urban are really an indication of doubts about the value of the projects of which those concepts are central. Radical urban theory, after all, has been consistently suspicious of ‘applied’ styles of urban thinking, those too closely connected to fields of planning, for example, or development, or even environmental management, where all those clunky concepts of bounded settlements and territorialised objects do their useful work – preferring to identify with social movements, and with more or less concrete imaginations of protest and resistance.

837I have to come to like the idea that ‘the urban’ is really a name for a problem, or for a series or variable problems (not quite the same as thinking of variable ‘attributes’). This is an idea I am stealing for my own purposes from my colleague Allan Cochrane, who develops it in his book on Urban Policy (if one is looking for an authoritative Theory reference, Foucault’s observations in his lectures on Security, Territory and Population about ‘the problem of the town’ might be a fun place to start – ‘the town’ emerges there as a figure for an extended network of dependence and vulnerability to which various agencies seek to respond). Allan, Scott Rodgers and I have been trying to articulate some of the implications of thinking about the urban in this way, partly through an edited collection on the theme of ‘Where is urban politics?’ that might hopefully see the light of day next year. Meanwhile, I have also tried to articulate the same set of ideas while thinking about making an OU Masters course on the theme of Changing Cities intended primarily to translate critical urban theory into a useful resource for those professions who act as key ‘intermediaries’ of contemporary spatial politics (planners, environmental managers, those sorts of people, maybe the occasional ‘activist’). To cut a long story short, I think the point would be that all those various attributes of ‘the urban’ are generative of their own points of political contention – but also that there is more to the variety of urban politics than protest; and indeed, that there is often more to protest than protest (protest is a form of claim-making, after all, of one sort of another). And, finally, that there is no reason whatsoever to assume (or want) this variety of urban-generated-but-not-contained politics to coalesce into anything so coherent as ‘revolutionary politics’ (one of the unacknowledged achievements of Marxist spatial theory is to demonstrate that the universalised agency required of a revolutionary political imaginary is always already, as they say, displaced and deferred).

So I have decided that arguments about the need to update and refine, specifically, to refine, our understandings of urban and urbanization, by posing this issue in terms of a debate about ‘the urban question’ from almost 40 years ago, tell us more about the operative concept of ‘theory’ at work in certain strains of critical urban and spatial theory than they do about how best to think about the meaning of ‘urban’, urbanism, the city, or urbanization. I wonder whether theory is really the sort of practice that has the task of isolating the ontological outlines of phenomena – of ‘the urban’, or perhaps, ‘the political’, from the appearances of town and cities and mere politics (there is of course much the same concept of theory at work in accounts of ‘the political’ as in contemporary discussions of ‘the urban question’, sharing much the same intellectual lineage – not for nothing does the notion of ‘post-political’ attach so easily to discussions of ‘the city’). I wonder too whether theory is really the proper medium for identifying the immanent potential for radical change in current events. Theories are, by definition, always theories of something – which means that any theory is caught in a subordinate relation of accountability to something that it isn’t. Unfortunately, too often this ‘other’ of theory is just assumed to be ‘Politics’ – which means that an overly theoreticist account of theory ends up holding itself accountable to an overly theoreticist account of what counts a proper politics.

So I’m left thinking that what the current state of radical urban theory confirms is not so much that ‘the urban’ is conceptually incoherent, but rather that the model of theory at work in this field needs to be challenged.

Compacted doctrines

One reason to have a blog, of course, silly to pretend otherwise, is shameless self-promotion. Or, to put it another, slightly more edifying way, to try to ensure that the things one has to say are made accessible and available in new ways. Like other Universities, the OU has an online repository for research publications – it’s great, it’s called ORO, Open Research Online. But they can be a bit sniffy about including publications that do not meet strict criteria of what counts as research. I have spent a lot of time over the last few years writing Dictionary and Encyclopedia entries, and these don’t get on ORO. 

It’s an interesting experience, being forced to write short, concise, didactic summaries on  topics like deconstruction, or fair trade, or foundationalism. I have mentioned before that I wrote a bunch of entries for the latest edition of The Dictionary of Human Geography. One reason this was an interesting experience is because it brings home how things you write are likely to be read in fundamentally different ways from how you might have intended. This is, of course, true of any writing, but the thing about the pieces I did for the Dictionary, I now realise, is that I wrote them as a group, just because I was working on them all at the same time, even though they were on seemingly disparate topics. But I wasn’t necessarily writing the entries for ‘adjacent’ topics. So in my head, at least, there is a riff running across these pieces that reflects something I was thinking about back then (I wrote my entries at the end of 2005, but they weren’t published ’til 2009). Of course, this is emphatically not how these entries will be read, because of the nature of the book they are published in – nobody reads one of these multi-author Dictionaries by tracking the contributions of particular authors (do they?). My entries contain strong links to related entries which I didn’t write, of course, and which might well not align exactly with the ‘line’ I thought I was trying to express on a particular issue. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying that here they are, all in a line, for anyone inclined to read them like that – these are the pre-published versions I initially submitted. There is a little entry on the Cultural Turn, then longer ones on Essentialism, Foundationalism and Deconstruction which sort of play off each other I think – the first two of these were really difficult to write, not so much because they are difficult topics, more because I realised how poorly defined they generally are in geography, serving really as terms of abuse. And these two are my favourites. Another cluster links Culture, Ideology, Media, and Rhetoric (I would really have quite liked to have been offered the Discourse and Representation entries too, just to nail home the point). Democracy and Theory are a bit more free-standing, I suppose, but still kind of overlapping with these.

I’m going to post these as downloads on the ‘Things to Read’ page too, and will add some other ‘occasional’ pieces as and when I have the time.

Theory Talks

This might not be new to anyone else, but I only just came across Theory Talks, a forum for discussion of theoretical issues in IR, broadly conceived – basically, interviews with academics, talking about big current global issues, and theory. The latest ‘talk’ is with Mark Duffield, previous participants include geographers John Agnew, Klaus Dodds, and David Harvey, and stretches beyond IR to include James Scott and Peter Singer.

Theorizing the Arab Spring

I have a short comment piece now published online in Geoforum, which discusses various different academic responses to The Arab Spring – amongst media theorists, leading lights in ‘Continental philosophy’, and anthropologists and other social scientists. It’s an attempt to raise some questions about what we have come to think Theory is, as revealed by academic public commentary on these ongoing events – contrasting a version of Theory practiced as the imposition of pre-disposed theoretical frameworks on the world, and a version in which theoretical ideas are thought of as somewhat more accountable to the contingencies of the world.  

Avid readers of this blog (that’s you, Michael) might notice that this piece works over some more or less random thoughts already articulated back in February and March. Accidentally, this Geoforum piece became part of the experiment with this blogging-thing, as a way of turning a public-ish scrapbook into a slightly more honed piece of academic prose/analysis.