“And after all, if a family can grow all its food for free off a piece of land which is no more than a family’s fair share of the land surface of its country, and have some produce left over for other people, and still have time to do other work, it is in a very sound position and nobody can say that it is not pulling its weight.” 

John Seymour, Fat of the Land

Two hours – Ed Caesar 

Wow! What a book. I don’t know anything about marathon running or runners but I loved this.

It’s the author’s ability to tell a gripping story that does it. He traces the aspirations of a small group of elite modern day marathon runners intent on running a marathon course around a city in less than two hours. As he points out, it’s insanely fast, and the amount of training and dedication required to get anywhere near it is all-consuming.

To bring the story alive he follows in particular Geoffrey Mutai, an incredible Kenyan runner who is among the top athletes in the sport. We get to see up close his frustrations as individual runs don’t come off and he’s left knowing he could have done better.

He shows, too, that Mutai is more than a runner, he’s the source of a local economy in Kenya: because the rewards from sponsors and race organisers are so high, he – like the many other Kenyans who excel at the sport – supports his family, friends and neighbours as well as himself in the village where he lives.

Ceaser explores the success of Kenyans in particular in the sport, and what comes through is the complexity of reasons for their dominance: ancestry, upbringings involving a lot of distance on foot, high altitude villages, traditions of running, scouts, hard training, diet… so many things.

This book, well, it’s just great writing, great reporting, on a group of people who are doing amazing things.

A damning indictment: Stuart Jeffries’ Grand Hotel Abyss

This is the kind of book I love, a mix of continental philosophy and biography that covers radical ideas and action around the 1960s. But, though it was well researched and written, the overall judgement of the Frankfurt School by Jeffries just didn’t feel right.

The book primarily covers the four original Frankfurt School figures: Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse. Jeffries covers their radical critiques of capitalism well, traces their origins in Hegel, Marx and Freud, and looks in detail at their lives, and how they were shaped by their upbringing and events, especially the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, from which they and their families fled.

Despite ending the book with the view that we need the analytical approach of critical theory to understand what is going on in our one dimensional, capital-driven society, in fact much of the tone of Grand Hotel Abyss contradicts that.

He regularly offers a quasi-Freudian criticism of the Frankfurt School as rich kids rebelling against their self-made industrialist father’s whilst, at the same time, relying on them for money. This feels like a bit of a cheap attack on some of the most far thinking theorists of the twentieth century.

More significantly, Jeffries presents the Frankfurt School as ivory tower intellectuals who – apart from Marcuse – refused to enter the fray of the political even during the upheavals of 1968.

Adorno in particular comes out badly in the book, not only for his ‘negative dialectics’ but as a fusty reactionary who doesn’t see the radical potential of the student movement to such an extent he opposes it. This may be true to some extent, but nothing is ever that simple and the lives and works of Adorno and the rest of the School are testament to them being engaged intellectuals who developed independent research and a school of thought that challenges capitalism in a way that still resonates.

Walter Benjamin comes out of the book most positively, primarily I think because he died young and therefore did not mellow in the way that the others did, or face a choice in the 1960s.

It’s a shame. I liked the subject matter, the style and many parts of the book, but ultimately it leaves you thinking that the Frankfurt School was a well-meaning but elitist project rather than forward thinking intellectuals offering a critique of capitalist society that gets more relevant by the day.

“Things were not going well. It was August, and my tree from the previous year’s Christmas still lay in a heap of brown, dead pine needles in my dark, unused dining room. I was ashamed to take it out to the trash, not wanting my neighbors to see how far I’d fallen, how utterly paralyzed I’d become by my years of excess. Eventually, my wife and I would make a heroic effort to dispose of the incriminating object – chopping it up like a dead body and stuffing it in plastic bags before lugging it in the dead of night a few floors down and leaving it near a known coke dealer’s doorway. Let him take the rap, we figured.”

Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

Ian McRay’s Writings on Psychogeography: vol 1

To be frank I’ve never fully understood what psychogeography means, but Ian McRay’s collection of his writings helps.

This small book contains exerts from his books and longer articles. It largely focuses on the areas of East London, especially Dalston, though covers London more widely and branches out to rural New Forest in the final chapter.

Psychogeography is the exploration of the way that geography – the city and buildings in particular – shape the way we think. It comes originally from the ideas and actions of Debord and the Situationists in 1960s Paris. It offers a way to critically analyse the city and a way to get a different perspective on the consumerism and conformism it reinforces.

At the heart of psychogeography is the ‘derive’ – a walk without purpose, spontaneous, that allows you to see things you wouldn’t normally see, defy the consumption and homogenous behaviour the city inspires, and transgress the private property rules that abound.

Some of this book is just history on a super micro level, but it also mixes in the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and extensive discussions of dance culture and how that challenged the norms of work-leisure time and building usage, but struggles to do so know as the mass media and the city appropriate the radicalism of dance and youth culture in order to commodify and control it. In this way it’s sociology, anthropology, history, critical theory and more.

In doing this McRay highlights a range of phenomena I’ve not noticed before, most interestingly I think about Radio 1. He points out that Radio 1 plays a role in containing youth, insofar as it constantly reinforces serious work time – Monday to Friday afternoon – and party time at the weekend, encouraging people to party but only at the right times for the good of social order – a clear contrast with the dance culture of rave.

The book also contains a fantastically erudite put-down (of a work called Transborderline)!

“This is bargain basement radicalism that reveals the paucity of meaningful ideas at the heart of so much contemporary art. As the art critic Peter Fuller once warned, ideas alone do not make great art, and this isn’t even a very good idea.”

On Cosmopolitanism – Jacques Derrida

Reading Derrida’s essay on cosmopolitanism, hospitality and the treatment of refugees what is most striking is how the mood on immigration has shifted so dramatically since it was written in 1997.

During the 1990s the ideas of cosmopolitanism and global human rights were relatively high on the agenda. In this context, Derrida argues in On Cosmopolitanism that when you deconstruct the concept of cosmopolitanism and how states should respond to claims for asylum or protection by refugees, it is divided between two poles.

On the one hand is a universalist normative ideal of hospitality which says everyone should be given refuge, regardless. On the other is the pragmatic consideration of the economic impact of accepting unlimited refugees. The principle is one of openness, of borderless-ness; the pragmatism is around what is financially possible. How these are negotiated, where the line is drawn, is the stuff of politics.

Derrida is aware in the essay, of course, that cosmopolitanism is not the only force driving nation states, and points to France as an example of a country that wants to be seen and understand itself as offering hospitality to exiles, refugees and migrants but also had started to crack down on migrants in order to control them. He refers to an ideal of ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘free cities’ as possible alternatives to state power, where we might see individual cities (he cites Strasbourg) offering hospitality to refugees regardless and despite what the state does.

Where we are today is light years from here – not just from these ideals but even the hopefulness that would allow someone like to Derrida to write this essay. The idea that the treatment of refugees comes from a negotiation between the universal of hospitality and the particular of what is possible seems almost impossibly utopian. Arguably, today the negotiation is wholly more negative.

On the one hand is the pragmatic need for a country like France to absorb migrants in order to ensure that the economy is viable. And on the other is the normative idea that there is an established nation with a people, an identity and a set of values that needs to be preserved. Debates about burkinis in France, Polish plumbers in the UK and Syrian refugees in Italy are all about borders and identity, with the concept of hospitality at best a marginal sentiment. Right wing populism, nationalism and borders are common currency now.

In typical Derrida fashion, On Cosmopolitanism is dense and at times obscure but ultimately sheds light – in this case on what was at stake when we were talking about ideals of cosmopolitanism.  But more than anything it makes you realise that question being asked in parliaments and city halls around the world is no longer, given we have an obligation to provide hospitality how many migrants can we practically take but, given we need migrants to power the economy how many can we take without diluting out national identity.

It makes you realise, put more simply, that our thinking on citizenship and immigration has taken a turn for the worse.

 Isabell Lorey – State of Insecurity

State of Insecurity is a theory heavy but often thought provoking book on contemporary capitalism and the nature of work.

Her basic argument is that precariousness – financial and existential insecurity – is part of modern capitalism and reinforced by government policy around welfare and pensions. It’s not just migrant workers and younger generations that are in a state of precarious work; everyone in and out of work have insecure and precarious coditions now that short term contracts, temping, zero hours, portfolio careers, a contracting state and the like have become the norm.

Drawing on Foucault’s idea of ‘governmentality’ she suggest this isn’t simply imposed on people from external forces (the state, businesses etc) but that people govern their own behaviour and conduct in light of this precariousness. Hence in a workplace, solidarity – if it ever existed – has been replaced by people developing their reputation and personal brand so as to compete with others for promotions in insecure jobs. The cultivation of this way of conducting yourself in public, where you are always in some ways working, is even stronger amongst freelancers, whether they chose the freelance option or not. For them, the division between work and leisure breaks down.

Finally, though, she sees – again following Foucault, this time his idea that power always creates resistance – that precariousness is not all bad: it creates problems but also the possibility of alternatives. She draws attention to movements of precarious workers who are identifying what they have in common and creating networks and movements to support themselves.

The book is big on theory and light on practice, which makes it an insightful analysis of the current situation for those with a good grasp of social theory, but doesn’t really provide the examples needed to bring things alive and help us understand what’s at stake and what different forms of resistance we might see.

The utopia of rules – David Graeber

There are so many thought-provoking ideas and new analyses in here that it seems wrong to summarise it for fear of missing some out. In just over 200 pages Graeber makes you think differently about technology, democracy and bureaucracy – and also feel slightly better about being inept at filling out forms.

The Utopia of Rules is really a collection of five discursive essays on the theme of bureaucracy. It says a lot about Graeber’s style, I think, that it’s easier to pull out some of the overarching themes of the book as a whole than do so for each of the essays separately. So, here are some.

His premise, his basic argument if you like, is that ‘we live in a deeply bureaucratic society’, so much so that we can hardly see how bureaucratic it is and struggle to imagine things being any other way. Importantly, this isn’t just government bureaucracy but more commonly the bureaucracy of large corporations and the relationship between the two.

This is most evident in our assumptions about technology. He asks the really interesting question: why have none of the technological development fantasised about in the 50s and 60s (flying cars, part time work for all, robots that think and act independently) come to pass? His argument is that the funding and direction for research and development has become increasingly focused on creating processes to administer our current economic, social and political arrangements, thus creating, in fact, a more complex bureaucracy. Grand schemes to change the world or do something radical with technology largely came to a standstill when the space race ended.

Bureaucracy, ironically, is also part of what we have come to think of as freedom. While many of us fantasise about living in a world unshackled from bureaucracy – and in an excellent few pages Graeber dissects the mass appeal of fantasy fiction like Lord of the Rings in this regard – in reality we tend to view arbitrary power held by others as an impediment to our freedom and bureaucracy, conversely, as a way to limit arbitrary power because it standardises everything.

But he also points out elsewhere in the book that bureaucracy also creates unequal power relations, with those who know and enforce bureaucratic processes in a stronger position than those following them. He refers to ‘interpretive labour’ as the additional work that those with less power are forced to do, using examples like the CEO or Minister who is able to make any pronouncement they like, with his or her staff then having to work hard to understand what that is, carry it out and smooth things out with other people. The person at the job centre or completing their performance appraisal or trying to get insurance is in a similar position.

He discusses in this respect why it is so easy for an otherwise intelligent person to making mistakes on forms. The reason is that people are so busy with the task of interpretive labour, working out what is required, which hoops need jumping through next and so on, that there’s no brain-space left for the mundane job of filling in a form in the right boxes.

What he points out, too, is that bureaucracy is so effective in creating this sense of worry because, when it comes down to it, the paperwork and inequality inherent in bureaucracy is backed up actual violence. This might be the law coming down on you for failing to get car insurance, or one step removed, being sacked from your job for not completing the performance appraisal paperwork correctly and thus becoming unemployed and poor.

And all this, he points out, is quite ridiculous. Not only does bureaucracy limit our possibilities, create inequalities and rely on the implicit threat of force. As the title of the book implies, Graeber also points out that ‘all bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract idea that real human beings can never live up.’

In highlighting these few things from David Graeber’s excellent book I’m just scratching the surface. There is so much to these essays. The novel ideas, of course, but also the style, which provides simple explanations of complex theories with occasional stories about himself to bring it alive. Some of it I’m not entirely sure of. He often refers to developing a left critique of bureaucracy which I think unnecessarily limits the possible audience for some of the insights in this book. And similarly he occasionally lets a rather conspiratorial view of a state acting in the interests of capital creep into his reading of certain situations. But nevertheless this is one of the best and most thought-provoking pieces of political analysis I’ve read in a long, long time.

 

Quiet – Susan Cain

Quiet explains a lot: why I like to spend time alone, need down time, prefer to write not talk, struggle to participate in groups, prefer the ‘flow’ of a focused activity, can wax lyrical about something I care about… and much else. And it says it’s ok, too.

Cain’s book is a piece of polemic, journalism and popular psychology in the style of Malcolm Gladwell. It was apparently years in the writing and researching, and it shows in the depth of learning and breadth of interviews and ideas.

She covers a lot of ground but never loses the core of her argument: that introverts are a significant part of the population yet are overlooked by our cultural bias toward the louder, charismatic, quick thinking but shallower extroverted ‘man of action.’

She shows the costs of this at work, in our social life, in schools and in our parenting. Not only do individuals who are introverted often suffer from lower self-esteem and don’t always flourish, but society doesn’t benefit from their creativity of introverts.

There are so many good ideas and ‘policy’ prescriptions in this book that I won’t summarise them, other than to say that we need to recognise, accommodate and value introversion not try to push people or ourselves to overcome it, as if it’s some kind of problem.

Any criticism of the book? Only one, a little one. Cain sets the book up as a battle between two personality types: the introvert and extrovert. But the reality is much more complicated. Because she adopts broad definitions of these terms most people will have elements of each, and they will be different at different times in their lives. (As the not normally pithy philosophers Deleuze and Guattari say at the start of A Thousand Plateaus: ‘The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us were several, there was already quite a crowd.’)

Few people are pure introvert or pure extrovert and so the complexity is, in fact, that elements of both are within all of us and we must find ways to recognise, accommodate and value introverted qualities whenever and in whomever they arise.

The Philosophy of Walking – Frederic Gros

Philosophy_of_Walking_300_CMYK-8cee85e10187dd95025726a613451c53

Read August 2014 

Sometimes you read a book that opens your mind to what a book can be.

The philosophy of walking is part philosophy, exploring the reasons, the feelings and the defining characteristics of walking. It is part biographical, telling us about the walking habits (and in fact wider lives) of philosophers and poets – Nietzsche’s epic walking, Rousseau’s incessant walking, Rimbaud’s constant fleeing, Thoreau’s belief in the walk, etc.

Above all it is lyrical, poetic even: the writing is beautiful throughout; it flows, it captures the moods and insights well beyond the sheer fact of putting one foot in front of another.

I have read other books like this, but not often.

A surprising element of the book is the focus on the countryside: on walking as something that is rural; across expanses of nothing; coming across streams, trees; coping with the weather; and so on.

Only one chapter is about urban walking where he talks about Baudelaire as the ‘urban flaneur’.

It’s refreshing and unusual for a contemporary philosopher or social theorist to talk about the countryside in a positive way: so many, like Negri or Harvey, see the city as the place of interest, change and potential.

Walking, too, in this book is about solitude: being alone, trudging, thinking and reflecting – it’s rarely a social affair. The aloneness takes many different forms, Gros says, but often – very often – it is the way in which thinkers think, the way they get their ideas.

Packed of little snippets of insight, one that is memorable for me is that books written in studies lined with books – books based on other books – are heavy, dense, difficult, whereas books borne of walking are light, airy, refreshing. This book is very much the latter – a lovely read, few references, philosophical and poetic. A very different kind of book.

Faith of the Faithless – Simon Critchley

Faith of the faithless

Read July 2014 

This is a fascinating book, though in my view it is perhaps overly complicated.

The fascination comes from Critchley’s excellent close readings of a variety of thinkers: Rousseau, Badiou, Zizek, Benjamin, St Paul. I learnt a lot from his readings of each, they were full of insight and he was able to bring alive some of their ideas in compelling and often counter-intuitive ways. His section on his argument with Zizek – which he points out is essentially the ongoing argument between Leninism-Marxism and anarchism – is interesting, and he offers a revealing picture of Zizek’s politics.

The complication comes because Critchley seems to find it difficult to sum up his own arguments. This might be because what he is arguing isn’t just one straightforward thesis, as he says early in the book, or because the full depth of his thought is necessarily complex and can’t be captured in a sentence or two.

Both those points are true. Nevertheless, on my reading there does seem to be a theory that he is advocating which he could have set out more clearly at some point (if only to show me that I’ve not completely misinterpreted him!):

First, because people aren’t ‘rational’ economic actors who contracted to the social order (as for liberals Locke, Rawls etc) people need a civil religion to bind them together – something that people have faith in that is based not in a different world (heaven or wherever) but in the here and now. Strangely perhaps, he refers to US constitutionalism – celebrating the flag, singing the national anthem etc as an example of this.

Second, though, the civil religion shouldn’t come from existing ideas and discourses. People need to clear their minds, to see beyond current hegemonic discourses as far as is possible. The belief that ought to animate people is a demand for something better – what he calls an infinite demand, a demand that is unattainable yet something that the people believe in, even though they don’t know what the outcome will be.

Third, politics occurs when different groups of people, with different interests, look beyond their individual or group interests and form an association based on an infinite demand, through which they challenge the state or capital. It might be in the interstices of power, it might be outright resistance – Occupy, worker co-ops, the Zapatista’s fight for autonomy are all examples of politics.

Fourth, place is important: an association, a civil religion and the infinite demand requires a locality to bind it together, to give it content. In line with much anarchist thought, Critchley says politics needs to be kept local to work: it might be in a workplace (a co-op experiment), in a city (the Occupy movement) or in a region (Zapatista resitance in Chiapas).

It is useful, too, to think about this in terms of the similarities and difference between Critchley’s and Badiou’s politics: for both, what’s required is the people to express fidelity to, or absolute faith in, an impossible demand, the outcome of which cannot be known; but whereas for Badiou this ‘event’ is rare and universal (the Paris Commune), for Critchley it can occur more regularly, when people form an association and find local spaces to resist the power of the state and capital in the name of an infinite demand.