Staff and students describe what they're reading, in their own words.
Professor of Sociology
There is a selfish reason why I am so pleased that Chloe Nast has revived Open Books. In the nineties I used to edit the department magazine and it was my idea to have a section on the books that lay open on the desks of staff and students. Even in an age where so much of what we read is on screen, books remain the most fundamental tools of our sociological trade.
One of the many luxuries of being on sabbatical is a chance to catch up on reading books. I have also spent a lot of time reading what’s been published recently and particularly articles by former students or the people whose PhDs I have examined. Their work is now populating the pages of the key sociological journals.
The book I have chosen is Graham Crow’s The Art of Sociological Argument (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). I bought this book when it came out but only read it symptomatically. I told myself that I’d read it properly when I could spend time with it. As the title suggests this is a book about rhetoric and how sociologists have made their arguments and communicated with their readers.
Crow takes eight sociological writers from the classic founders to the present day. Each sociologist is treated to a chapter on the biographical and historical contexts of their thought and writing. The authors reviewed include obvious choices like the big three ‘founding fathers’ - Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber, although Crows discussion of them though is far from obvious. For example, I was surprised to realize how short their sociological lives were – Marx having greatest longevity at 64 years with Durkheim next at 59 years and Max Weber just 56 years. Crow leads us through the ways in which they used metaphor, like Weber’s idea of bureaucracy as an ‘iron cage,’ or personification, as in Marx’s unforgettable ‘Mr Moneybags,’ to make their arguments.
Next Crow gives us a trio of American sociological writers - Talcott Parsons, Charles Wright Mills and Erving Goffman. It’s no secret that I have a weakness for the writing of C. Wright Mills but reading this book I found myself having much more sympathy for Talcott Parsons as a person. Parsons comes across as patient and even tempered, while Mills seems bombastic and imprecise by comparison. Yet at the same time, Mills is more lasting and alluring to his readership. Goffman is presented as a sociological humourist with a brilliant eye more analytical metaphors. However, the purpose of a metaphor for Goffman is to support an argument like scaffolding: “Scaffolds… are to build other things with, and should be erected with an eye to taking them down”. Erving Goffman did more than any other sociologists to give us a way of understanding society’s back stage, while at the same time being very secretive about his own personal life.
The last part of the book features a chapter on Michel Foucault and another on Ann Oakley. Crow talks very thoughtfully about Foucault’s use of shock tactics and a kind of gothic style in his writing. Foucault’s rhetoric insists on leaving things open, refusing to claim the final word on any given issue. For Foucault, those who claim knowledge pilfer the voices of their subjects and in the contexts discussions of crime this “shuts the prisoner up (in both senses)”.
Ann Oakley is the only female sociological writer to be included. The chapter dedicated to Oakley’s writing was this reader’s favourite. What Crow does so successfully is to re-enchant books that you think you know already. It was a real surprise and revelation to be introduced to the range of Oakley’s writing from her classic The Sociology of Housework to policy reports, memoir, fiction and poetry. The diversity of Oakley’s work is astonishing, she writes: “All writing is an invitation to the imagination… a matter of new arrangements of words, and thus of new forms.”
In a way Oakley’s work is a provocation to find new ways of writing sociologically. Crow quotes Oakley from one of her eighties poetry collections: “who would want a history of articles / typed and dissected, lost and uncredited.” By implication Oakley is challenging us to ask: will the books and articles we’ve written all too speedily for the audit culture inevitably have a short shelf life?
The Art of Sociological Argument is a wonderful and beautifully written book. It has cost me a small fortune in impulse purchases from Amazon. Reading Crow makes me want to go back to the classics from Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd to Oakley’s Gender of Planet Earth. The book reads like an argument that has been rehearsed and honed through teaching the work of these great sociologists.
Crows conclusion is that there are ways we can improve the way we express our arguments. He offers ten points on how to write sociology more artfully. I have paraphrased them here as follows:
- Care for your readers - invite your readers into a conversation with your problem, rather than preach to them by being overly didactic.
- Challenge your reader’s presuppositions and surprise them, even if this means being shocking.
- Don’t be afraid to use humour and irony to amuse and persuade.
- Work with what is counter-intuitive and perplexing and it will open up new insights.
- Metaphors and analogues can help get beyond descriptions of phenomena that are readily perceived.
- Formulate imaginative questions that invite interesting sociological answers.
- Foster a capacity for self-criticism.
- Seek to persuade and do not assume that readers will share your agenda or understanding.
- Avoid claiming too much in an argument but also be aware of the risks of claiming too little and not explicating its potential.
- Literary style is no substitute for content but a good argument is all the better for being well presented.
In fifty years from now such a book will need to be written very differently. It has made me reflect on the transformation of Goldsmiths Sociology during my twenty years here, from a department with less than a handful of female colleagues to one where the majority of Goldsmiths sociologists are women.
Sociology has no future without feminist writers and the male domination of the discipline, as represented in the writers reviewed in this book, simply cannot and should not last. That’s not to mention the ubiquitous whiteness of the authors included in this book. With this in mind it is interesting to think and perhaps hope for what the sociological pantheon might look like, and how different the discipline will be, when Goldsmiths Sociology celebrates its centenary.
3rd year PhD student
In my first week at Goldsmiths, as part of our PhD induction, Les Back encouraged us to read as widely as possible during the PhD; this would influence and enrich our writing and thinking, he said. This was music to my ears. I always feel a strong allure for what I shouldn't be reading, as it seems much more appealing than what I should. Hence I'm currently indulging my secret – and very sociological – addiction to feminist sci-fi, working my way through the Women's Press output of the 1980s, currently with Joan Sloncewski's 1986 novel, A Door into Ocean. I love to have a choice of novels to read before bed, so I'm also halfway through Owls Do Cry, by New Zealand writer Janet Frame, which I'm reading for my book group. Reading New Zealand fiction reminds me of my sunny, remote origins while I'm stuck in deepest darkest British winter.
In my academic reading, I'm currently discovering Lauren Berlant's work – a long overdue exploration – starting with her 2008 book The Female Complaint which I'm hoping will inform one of my PhD chapters on young women singing opera. I have constantly at hand one of the key texts for my PhD, Terry Eagleton's The Ideology of the Aesthetic, which I dip in and out of almost as an anchor or talisman to orient myself when stormy PhD weather approaches. Finally, I'm working through some reading for my two reading groups.
This includes other PhD students' work-in-progress for the NYLON research network – it's always great to read colleagues' work, especially work in progress as it reassures me that others also have a bumpy process of thinking and writing. And for my music and culture reading group we're reading Michel Serres' chapter on sound from Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, which is surprisingly delicious, as well as Anja Kanngieser's article, 'A sonic geography of the voice: towards an affective politics', which with its explorations around voice, timbre, and space has many resonances for my current writing.
Professor of Sociology and Pro-Warden in Interdisciplinary Development
As background to an ESRC project I have on 'super-rich' neighbourhoods in London I have been working my way through the lovely Penguin series celebrating 150 years of the London Underground. So far I have read geographer Danny Dorling's (2013) The 32 Stops about the Central line, the 1980s 'style Guru' Peter York's (2013) The Blue Riband which focusses on those part of the Piccadilly line that run under some of our main case study areas, and the novelist John Lanchester's (2013) quite brilliant What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube. They are short books and each can be more or less read during two trips on the Overground on the way to work between Dalston Junction and New Cross Gate.
I have also been reading an excellent collection of academic essays on Elite Mobilities (Routledge, 2014) edited by Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío that contains some great chapters to help us think about our ESRC project. I have also just got Punk Sociology, by my erstwhile colleague from York, Dave Beer, which I intend to read one evening when I am back on the booze - after January - whilst listening to a play-list of random Patti Smith, Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Wire and the Clash.Having just done the Breaking Bad box set thing I can now at last start Difficult Men: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad (2013) by Brett Martin; an interesting take on the media and gender politics. Pat Loughrey, the Warden at Goldsmiths, recently gave me a set of excellent recordings of Ulysses by James Joyce, a book I have started many times..... They are a wonderful rendering of the text full of fabulous Irish voices that add a whole new dimension to the novel. Finally, there is an absolute ton of stuff that I 'have' to read but which I cannot reveal to you here. I am on the REF panel for Social Policy and Social Work and have just been sent my list of the first 100 or so 'outputs' that I have to 'evaluate'.
Somewhere along the MPhil/PhD path
Every once in a while, a book seems to leap off of the shelf at Blackwell’s, Charing Cross Road, or Waterstones, Gower Street, and slap you each side of your cheeks. Such was the case with the first book in my ‘recently read and couldn’t put down’ list. (Btw, I’ve named the bookshops just in case this goes viral, is spotted by Blackwells or Waterstones, and I get sent some much needed vouchers for the publicity).
The vulnerable and marginalised young people in my own research come from Gypsy and Traveller communities. Anywhere near decent books about these communities are few and far between. Why? Well let’s be blunt. A lot of people share a view about Gypsies and Travellers akin to the three words in the blurb on the back jacket of the book (I know it’s got a proper name, but I’ve forgotten it), “They are reviled.” This book goes someway to making those who read it think differently.
No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmy is a well-researched (over seven years), well written and poignant story about the lives and experiences of primarily four families, before and after their eviction from Dale Farm, and chronicles their struggle from one trouble spot to another, along with their efforts to seek justice.
Quarmby is an award-winning social affairs commentator and film-maker, specialising in disability, equality and human rights. Her book Scapegoat, about disability targeted violence, won the Ability Media International Prize for Literature in November 2011, and in 2012 she was shortlisted for the Paul Foot Award for her disability campaigning. No Place to Call Home is her most recent book and is well worth a read if you want to be skillfully and sympathetically led into the lives of these communities, told, in the main, in their own words.
My second book, Death and the Migrant, by Yasmin Gunaratnam is a must read for so many reasons. Yasmin’s book is, like No Place to Call Home, well-researched, and poignant, but for me the ‘PhD changing moment’ lies also in how it is written. Whilst it is a sociological account of transnational dying and care in British cities, it doesn’t drown the voices of the participants in a sea of sociological theory. Instead the narratives are skillfully woven with observations from philosophy and feminist and critical race scholars. Now there’s a bit of a rarity. An academic, who is also a sociologist, who is prepared to write in a narrative style that places the people at the heart of their stories, told in their voices. I can hear the sharp intake of breath at this observation, but heck, we all need a reminder sometimes.
I mentioned earlier that this was a ‘PhD changing moment’. It has been. After seemingly ages of struggling with how to write my own research, including that all too painful literature review, I have now discovered a style that best suits the stories of my own participants, and indeed my own story of the research experience. Dare I say it - writing has now become fun!
Finally, when in ‘I need to press the sod it button’ mode I turn to the books relating to my favourite TV programme, QI. Yes, I know it sounds geeky, or nerdy, or whatever the appropriate phrase is, and yes it does often mean I stand alone in the kitchen at parties, and probably explains why every pet I’ve had in the last few years has left home, but it is mercifully cerebrally unchallenging, and more importantly, fun.
The latest QI book 1,339 QI Facts to Make Your Jaw Drop does what it says on the tin (well, cover). It has, errrrmm, 1,339 facts, some of which will make your jaw drop, and occasionally elicit a smile or two, even from the most stressed. I’ve randomly opened up a page to give you an example. Page 216. “The Yagan of Australia use mamihlapinatapei to mean “the wordless yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something, but who are both reluctant to start.” Don’t tell me you haven’t been there. I have, oddly enough often in the kitchen at parties. Now you know what to call it.
Professor of Sociology
At the moment I have William Sewell’s Logics of History on my desk. I have read it before, and again quite recently, but I’m trying to get clear what it really means to think of human rights as ‘socially constructed’. I really appreciate the way Sewell approaches the study of resources and material objects from a constructivist perspective and especially the metaphor he uses to represent ‘the social’ as our ‘built environment’, into which we’re all born, over which we have relatively little individual control, and which is (almost literally) concrete, practical.
What I’ll be reading - or again re-reading - most immediately though is an extract from ‘On the Jewish Question’, another from T.H. Marshall’s ‘Citizenship and Social Class’, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They’re all for the seminar on the third year course Citizenship and Human Rights I’ll be leading this week. Although they take in quite a historical reach - Marx was writing in the mid-nineteenth century on the French Revolution of the late eighteenth century while Marshall and the Universal Declaration are both mid-twentieth century - they represent very different versions of thinking about the relationship between capitalism and human rights that are still relevant to this day (though neither of them has the last word, especially given the rise of movements campaigning for alternative forms of development that are so important in Latin America and elsewhere).
I’m never without at least one novel on my bedside table – quite often a pile of them. I just finished reading Alice Munro’s most recent book of short stories Dear Life. I think Munro’s my all-time favourite author. Her stories are about endurance, the small things that make a difference in life, and the complexities and layers of love. They can be heart-breaking – very personal - and they’re almost all melancholy. But they’re a kind of counterweight to the social theory I read by day. Social theorists are trying to work out how to make persuasive generalisations (even if they’re limited to a particular time and place or grounded in ethnographic methods). Munro’s short stories make the most of individual lives, in all their peculiarities. That’s something I never want to lose sight of, even if I hope I’ll always be interested in what sense we can make of the world through argument and critical example too.
At this moment there is a small but unruly pile of books on my desk, calling to be (re)opened in various different places. Some are new arrivals, pages still crisp and unturned, others are pulled from my bookshelf and are on their second, third or fourth reading, and a few are finds from the library, which I always come out of with more than I went in for (it’s a dangerous place).
Those that are new include Sidewalk by Mitchell Duneier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) and The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte (Project for Public Spaces, 2013 ), which is, impressively, on its eleventh printing. I first encountered Duneier’s Sidewalk 7 years ago, but I have only just bought myself a copy. It is an exceptional ethnography that takes the reader onto the streets and into the lives of people on the extreme margins of urban society – Hakim, Ishmael, Mudrick, Ron, Keith, Butteroll, and Alice, who make their livelihoods on the sidewalks of Greenwich Village selling books and other secondhand goods. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a thin volume that the author describes as a ‘pre-book’, and has as its companion a 55-minute Super 8 film with the same title and the same general structure – chapter titles include ‘Sun, Wind, Trees, and Water’.
Based on research by the Street Life Project, the book and film explore the social and structural composition of city spaces. Amongst the library pile are Jane Jacob’s masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Modern Library, 1993 ), a critique of 1950s urban planning policy which contains an evocative account of a ‘street ballet’ that I am hoping to work into my own writing at some point, and anthropologist Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke University Press, 2007), a series of vignettes that combine storytelling, close ethnographic detail, and critical analysis to bring attention to the affective dimensions of everyday life. Pulled from the bookshelf are Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses (Wiley, 2005) – I have reached for this book many times, but this time I am especially excited as Pallasmaa has just accepted an invitation to speak at Goldsmiths later this year – and Les Back’s The Art of Listening (Berg, 2007), which I always return to when I am struggling with my own writing.
MA Digital Sociology student, graduated 2013
As a recent graduate of the Digital Sociology programme, I find myself wanting to go back to some of the authors that laid the foundations of the digital sociological imagination.
Alas, all of my books have recently been packed away and have left New Cross for whatever adventures might come my way, so they're not to hand. But there are some books I immediately want to pull out of the box when they're delivered.
My well-worn, much underlined copy of The Sociological Imagination by C. Wright Mills will be there alongside The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Yes, they are pre-digital sociology, but they still have so much to say about why we may do the things we do online (as well as offline).
My post-Goldsmiths career has taken me into the user research field so my reading diverges from the well-worn sociology paths to visit The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It's hard to believe that this book was written 30 years ago, and yet tools, objects and services are still being designed in such a way that disempowers users and reduces their agency.
My user research tends to be quite ethnographic with one-to-one interviews and field observations being a staple of my work. I'm currently reading Quiet: the power of introverts by Susan Cain on my e-reader, partly because I self-identify as an introvert, but also because I'm keen to see how the concept of 'introversion' could play out in the field.
On my wish list to read are: Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age by Dhiraj Murthy (I'm gutted that he started in the Sociology Department after I finished my MA) and It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd. I'm thrilled to see more and more books being released that seek to address some of the questions we were bouncing around the seminar room in Hatcham House.
A couple of months ago, I was at a symbolic demonstration against the loss of life in the Mediterranean in Syntagma square on a cold, rainy Saturday evening. Children were holding candles and paper boats. Organised as a denouncement of Fortress Europe, people chanted, sang, and prayed in different languages. After the small crowd dispersed, I started walking through the streets of Athens, and found myself gravitating towards a slightly hidden-away small bookshop that I suspected might still be open. Aside from books on the shelves, there’s a table with a box full of packs of different postcards depicting Athens made by local photographers.
When I got there, the owner Ioanna was trying to help a man find a pack which might contain a particular postcard which he saw on the display rack, showing a “typical” protest – masked-up crowd, riot police, in Syntagma – saying “Welcome to Greece” in a garish font. I joined in, rifling through the packs with her, but the man grew impatient and left. A few minutes later, we found it. Too late. As we put the postcards back in their place we had a chat, and she asked me what I do, and I said I study sociology. She raised her hands immediately and with exasperation cried – “Ah! Sociology! In the 70s, we thought we could change things … many of us studied sociology. And what did we do? What did we change?” She paused. “Do you think it is useful?” She narrowed her eyes a little, and told me: “you need to read some fiction”. Before I had a chance to protest, she picked a couple of books off the shelf and placed them in my hands. “These are for you, a gift”.
One of those books was called “Stolen Time” by Vangelis Hatziyannidis, about an archaeology student who is trapped in a hotel by a mysterious sect that claims to want to “interview him”. Continuing the spirit of books as gifts, another PhD student has lent me Ivan Vladislavic’s “The Loss Library and Other Unfinished stories”. It’s been described as a book of “unsettled accounts or case studies of failure,” and all the texts have as their starting point kernels of stories from his notebooks that he couldn’t bring himself to write. It’s beautifully written, and it makes me wonder about what happens to other kinds of fragments, like those that people talk about related to their PhDs or the book they are writing, the bits that didn’t quite fit in and get cut out.
I’m also reading Howard Caygill’s latest book, “On Resistance: a Philosophy of Defiance.” A deftly explored “archive of resistance” guided by Clausewitz, the book interweaves theoretical engagements with historical reflections, and artistic practices, as well as contemporary situations. One chapter that I am lingering on concerns the question of preservation and enhancement of the capacity to resist, and Caygill’s consideration of how this is thought and practiced through resistant subjectivity. I wasn’t there for the launch symposium, but the whole thing is online as a podcast, and hearing Jacqueline Rose, Costas Douzinas and others’ generous critique and engagement with Caygill’s book whilst making my way through it is precious.
Finally, the first thing I turn to when it comes through the door, is the monthly “Invisible Jukebox” section in the Wire, where musicians are played “a series of records which they are asked to identify and comment on – with no prior knowledge of what they are about to hear” and tell stories about their life in and through music. This month, the great Russell Haswell was played one of his own records, and he didn’t recognize it. The interviewer asks him “You’ve said you don’t listen to your records after you’ve made them. Why not?”
He responds: “I guess the point would be that I’ve already made it, so I’ve already pushed myself, and I need to find another place I haven’t been”. He talks about how he prefers live music: “The place, the people, everything; that real staging of a gig with a good PA – there’s no way you’d ever have that in your house. Also the social thing: you’re going out, and it’s probably at a ridiculous time, like five in the morning. I love everything about it. I like clubs, and I’m a voyeur as well, I like watching people react. That might be part of the reason I do what I do, because I like watching people freak out.” I wonder if this would be great way not only to interview people about their life in and through books, but also how they come to focus on what they do.
The idea of this blog is that we, the people of Goldsmiths sociology, tell you what we are “currently reading”. But, as sociologists are well aware of, when people are asked to disclose intimate details about themselves, what they say is not the same as what they actually do. So, I assume, like the other contributors, I am not going to tell you what I am actually reading (be that zoo newsletters, trash thrillers, self-help books, vintage car books, Tory manifestos, travel guides, erotica etc.), but rather report on those books that I assume fit with your ideas of what Goldsmiths sociologists read.
I must confess: I am a late reader in the sense that almost everything I read is some years old. There are more old books than new books, and the new ones are, at least in my experience not better than the older ones (though I understand that the old ones were once new themselves). I must further confess: I almost never finish a book, however brilliant it is. I don’t know whether this is a character flaw or not, particularly given that I am supposedly an intellectual.
There are books on my desk and next to the bed. These are two different categories of books, though I cant really explain the difference. Its not that the former are scientific and the latter novels. It’s more that some end up here and the other there and then usually remain there. Some books just don’t belong next to a bed, though you will find this observation somehow doesn’t fit with the list below.
Next to my bed are two massive tomes. One is by my friend Sascha Rösler and entitled “Worldconstruction. Non-European Building and Modern Architecture. An Inventory” (well, its in German: “Weltkonstruktion”). It is a brilliant history of the anthropology of architecture. It is a book that only somebody can write who is equally architect and anthropologist, but really neither of these. The book’s main thesis is modern building, and some of its most central ideas such as “habitat” or “sustainability” can only be understood by looking at architectural anthropology and its interest in particular world regions and constructive techniques. If we take this seriously, the arrow of knowledge and practice transfer did not go only from north to south, as in the export of modernism to the south (as in Chandigarrh or Brasilia), but also the other direction. Architectural anthropologists went to certain places, because they could learn from these buildings ideas about climate and construction that were obliterated by modernism itself.
The second book on my bedside table is a huge volume on “Actor-Media Theory” edited by Erhard Schüttpelz and Tristan Thielmann (again in German), which contains a wealth of articles on the relationship of media theory to Actor-Network theory. That’s rather technical, though often funnier than expected.
Third, there is a book “In the Heart of the Sea. The Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick” by Nathaniel Philbrick. It does exactly what the title says. Most fascinating so far is the description of Nantucket, the place where the whaling ships departed from, was run by the women who were left behind (the men would only return for three months every three years). A dense network of women were running businesses and the few months when men returned they would accompany their women on their business meeting as trophy husbands. It would be nice to see something similar in contemporary professions. Other than that, the book is mostly about what ultimately happens when a small group is left on their own at sea – humans eating humans.
On my desk is among other things a not so recent book by Peter Sloterdijk “You must change your life!”, which does not really do what the title says - or at least, I didn’t, unfortunately - but anyway, that’s not what you would expect either. But it doesn’t matter, because it keeps my brain busy and makes me impressed about so much Bildung. At the same time I keep pondering how so much Bildung cannot prevent an author from suggesting that taxes should be made voluntary and various other politically rather dubious interventions he trumpets around in German newspapers (and which the Anglophone reception of Sloterdijk conveniently overlooks).
Finally, there is the rare book that I actually read from A to Z, Christopher Bellaigue’s “Rebel Land. Among Turkey’s Forgotten People.” Like “In the Heart of the Sea” it is a model of reportage. It is the harrowing history of the fate, intermingling, and ongoing fighting between Kurds, Armenians, Alevis and Turks seen through the lens of one village, Varto, in the southeast of Turkey. De Bellaigue is excellent in using family histories and village politics to dissect contemporary Turkey, a state in which officially since Atatürk live only “Turks”, yet in which for hundreds of years people have identified with numerous ethnic and religious categories.
Professor of Sociology and Head of Department
I get the chance to read at three times of my day, if I’m lucky that is. As I head into work on a crowded commuter train into Waterloo, then out to New Cross, I have standing room only and enough space to hold a small book close to my face. Turning pages is a skill; writing comments in the margins in pencil, even greater. Sometimes there is the gruff stare as I elbow a passenger to my left or flick a page too close to the face of another. I’m always very conscious of how I hold my pencil, for fear of stabbing a nose or a thigh as the train shunts and topples me to the floor.
It’s in this milieu that I am reading Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights. There’s something to be said for a light, small book with pages that easily absorb graphite. This is straightforward writing. And I don’t need to make too many underlines and comments on the page. This is a book I can read and don’t need to study every sentence. But this is perhaps to treat the writing shabbily, as if to condemn it to light-heartedness, a read not serious and weighty. On the contrary, a book that provides the atmosphere for further thought, that bathes my face with every breath of thought, is a subtle delicate, light-of-touch book. Its essentialness is measured not by its weight, but by its lack of suffocation, by its soulfulness.
During the day my e-mails, reports, demands, etc, etc, etc are not read, they are administered, sorted, dealt with, put to one side to be dealt with later, or deleted, mentally scrunched up into the tightest ball and binned. On my return home I again open the covers and turn the pages like a child desperate for a present under the tree. Tired, but with more space to flex my arms and a seat (reading is such a physical activity), I start to read again. Achille Mbembe’s On the Postcolony rests in my hands and alongside it sits a London paper. I read a line or two of Mbembe, make copious notes; I underline almost everything. Everything is significant. The page becomes striped and speckled, thick lines and smudged writing. I’m not sure I can cope with such meaningfulness. I look out of the window. I’m tired. I start to read the newspaper. And then I turn back to Mbembe, I manage a paragraph, before my station arrives.
At ten in the evening, with a cup of tea, I sit up in bed with the crossword, sudoku plus a book on avalanches. I come to each one in turn over the course of my tea. The book on avalanches provides me with a metaphor for my next day at work. Ah, sleep.
In recent weeks I've been re-reading a handful of histories of 'eating out' in the UK by Stephen Mennell, John Burnett and Alan Warde. For the main part, this has been a belly rumbling journey from eleventh century taverns through sixteenth century coffee houses to the smorgasbord of eateries in 20th century Britain, although some of the pages I was turning were a bit dry, maybe even stale. I've been reading these alongside five centuries worth of history in Japanese culinary culture, finishing with the wonderful work of Goldsmiths sociology's own Tomoko Tamari on aesthetics and modernity in early 20th century Japan. This is all part of the research for a book chapter I am currently writing on Asian food in 21st century London.
I've also just read J.G. Ballard's High Rise. I first encountered it in 'snippet' form in an essay by Matthew Gandy about the hybridity of urban research subjects. The novel is about the architectural production of very small but ultimately crucial class distinctions between the inhabitants of a luxury housing tower in west London. I have also just read a beautiful little book that Les Back handed me called London's Overthrow, a non-ficyion essay by sci-fi writer China Meiville. Focussing on the city in the months that filled 2012-2013 the book offers a 'portrait of a city before an apocalypse'.
As much as I enjoy his science fiction work, I normally struggle to visualise the detailed cities in Meiville's fiction work. In this case, however, there's a great deal in this trembling vision of urbanity that I recognise. If Meivilles work is pre-apocalyptic, the most recent novel I picked up takes place in the next phase, an actual apocalypse. Margaret Atwood's MaddAdam is the third part in a trilogy that explores life in a city North American city following a massive biologically engineered genocide. Alarmingly, like Meiville's novel, there are many things in Atwood's fantastical city scape that relate to the 21st century cities I know: radical spatial segregation, securitisation, evangelists, eco protesters, ethically barren pharmacoms and hyper-violent convicts. Goats, genetically engineered to grow luminous human hair extensions, aren't here yet but I can't help but feel they're on their way.
On reflection, all the books I am reading take place in, or pertain to, cities. As Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities' demonstrates, the stories we hear or tell about cities, and our experience of them, are inseparable. Not only do the books I read shape the way I read cities themselves, but my reading of these books are suffused with images and fragments from my own experience of urban life.
I’m beyond busy. I currently have four paid jobs, to respond to the needs of a household with two children and disciplinary travel costs. I teach at Goldsmiths on Thursdays, and at other times at the University of Salford. I work at the University of Bradford two days a week, and on a research project for COMPAS at Oxford. The overspill from all this is huge.
So I am never 'reading something', although I am always reading something. The idea of starting a book, and then languorously sinking into it until the conclusion arrives, is a complete non-starter at the moment.
However, I have just written and submitted two papers, one on the riots, and another on an archive of photography. I’ve been through research on the London Olympics, and I'm about to start mining literature on technology and identities. I have revisited Manuel Castells, Levi-Strauss, semiotics and structuralism, to prepare myself for teaching.
But to respond to this brief honestly, I have to admit that the only thing I can practically do outside my 'essential activities', which also includes various domestic tasks, emergencies, travelling, and moments of complete exhaustion, is to read poetry.
I return to the New York poets most often. Recently, my friend Robert Galeta generously sent me an original copy of Frank O’Hara's 'Belgrade, November 19, 1963', which is an amazing thing. Its staples are beautiful. So I’ve been reading that, but most often I wake to the alarm with John Ashbery's Selected Poems (Carcanet) somewhere near my face.
Ashbery's work is very open, it is 'about something', at the same time as it gives the reader room to re-inhabit his landscapes. And they are wonderful, recharging landscapes, full of light and potential, despite being darkly political at times.
A few nights ago I made it all the way through his poem 'Saying It To Keep It From Happening':
Some departure from the norm
Will occur as time grows more open about it.
The consensus gradually changed; nobody
Lies about it any more. Rust dark pouring
Over the body, changing it without decay -
People with too many things on their minds, but we live
In the interstices, between a vacant stare and the ceiling,
Our lives remind us. Finally this is consciousness
And the other livers of it get off at the same stop.
How careless. Yet in the end each of us
Is seen to have travelled the same distance - it’s time
That counts, and how deeply you have invested in it,
Crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it were
The same as making it happen. You’re not sorry,
Of course, especially if this was the way it had to happen,
Yet would like an exacter share, something about time
That only a clock can tell you: how it feels, not what it means.
It is a long field, and we know only the far end of it,
Not the part we presumably had to go through to get there […]
So much sociological and philosophical thinking is compressed into a line like 'crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it were the same as making it happen.' The brevity of these poems is crucial, for my current circumstances, ‘people with too many things on their minds, but we live, in the interstices’. Of course, for those of you familiar with him, Ashbery writes very long poems too. He once explained that his extended works are ‘diaries or logbooks of a continuing experience', and that they cover more territory. But for me, his shorter works are also vast. They compress so much. Last night I revisited 'Purists Will Object', and its diagnosis is as politically incisive and contemporary as its language is musical and open:
We have the looks you want:
The gonzo (musculature seemingly wired to the stars);
Colours like lead, khaki and pomegranate; things you
Put in your hair, with the whole panoply of the past:
Landscape embroidery, complete sets of this and that.
It's bankruptcy, the human haul,
The shining, bulging nets lifted out of the sea, and always a few refugees
Dropping back into the no-longer-mirthful kingdom
On the day someone else sells an old house
And someone else begins to add on to his: all
In the interests of this pornographic masterpiece,
Variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are drawn,
Pleasure we cannot and will not escape […]
In the end, Ashbery is a very fine replacement for all the sociology and philosophy monographs I might read at the moment. And from inside my equally compressed momentary tunnel I ask, how might we write sociology like John Ashbery, in a way that is both very open and politically purposeful?
‘How was your day, mate? Doing nothin’?’ he asked.
It was the end of my teaching day; I just smiled. He sat next to me, drinking S.
‘You know what…doing nothin’ is not good’ he said.
I recalled that it was one of the moments to say something in a dialogue:
‘What do you mean by that?’
The oral history lectures took shape in flesh and bones before my eyes as I was told the history of Docklands, SE16 - with two more pints of S.:
‘…then…I started to work in docks. I was 13. Now, I am 61. Yes, I am 61 [staring at swans - silence]. Oh those years…We were working 12 hours in a day but we were producing mate. I was making 3 quid in a week; swear to God, I was damn happy. I was giving 1 quid to my lovely mum, God bless her, and 2 quid for me. That’s it. I was happy. You know why…cos’ I was doing something, we were creating something man. Doin’ something, assembling in the docks…You know, feeling worthy…’
A few days ago, at home, so many materials on cognitive capitalism (see MATISSE, Panthéon-Sorbonne), lying on the dining table…
I am re-reading some pieces from Marx; the pieces that are on work and human nature, mostly unveiled in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. And, I must confess that Sean Sayers (1998) is holding my hand during my night trip. Material productive activity is ‘species activity’; Marx argues, ‘man’s spiritual essence, his human essence’ (1975: 328). Productive activity as the man’s spiritual essence, he says. For me, this is enchanting. Marx approaches labour as a process through which we make ourselves more at home in the world. He terms latter the process of ‘objectification’, harbouring two aspects simultaneously: by giving a human form to the world through working on it, we embody our capacities and power in things and recognise them as objective and real thus we develop a consciousness of ourselves. Second, at the same time, by thus giving objective things a human form, we overcome our estrangement from the nature and come to feel in harmony with it, reconciliation (Marx, 1975 in Sayers 1998).
‘Oh T., I think I understand what you mean’ I said, getting excited.
A brief dialogue on that was followed by: ‘But T., you know…work can and should be fulfilling but most of the actual work is seen nowadays as unpleasant and unwanted toil?’
‘Mate’, as if he were very well aware of my implicit intention, ‘now it’s your turn. I’m a good listener and I’ve time’, he replied leeringly while rolling his tobacco.
What we read might sometimes make us feel alive – more at home in the world.