October update

Living

May this find you well…

Just briefly:

My next book, Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, will be out with Edinburgh University Press from December this year. Hopefully a cheaper paperback will follow.

I am now a Lecturer in Social and Political Thought at the Open University, which I joined in July. My new colleagues and institution are wonderful. It feels like home. They are doing important work there.

I have redesigned and updated this site. There’s now a section on Teaching which has the YouTube videos and learning materials from two of my courses on The Stoics and post-war French philosophy (Society, Language, Difference). They were taught remotely this year during the lockdown. The Stoics in particular was an important one. They have a lot to teach us.

I will update that section with other teaching materials from my other courses in due course. I am starting a new phase of writing and research in political theory, with the blessing of job security and the Spinoza book soon behind me. But it will not be rushed.

Six years since Searching

Living

https://searchingforalbion.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/albion-day-1-london-to-canvey-033.jpg

It is six years this week since I first set out on the journey that would become Island Story. I captured those long sunny days from a bike-seat on a blog, Searching for Albion. I’d update it each day while out on the road. Experiences, stories, observations, odd banter. Usually in the pub, while charging up my phone and drying out my jacket on a radiator. I did a lot of drinking that summer.

That blog now stands as a vast, rambling, multi-sensory primary source anthology of lives in 2014. Looking back, I set out to be like the eye in Virginia Woolf’s writing, that takes in the whole scene and ‘licks it all up instantaneously’. (Ok, enough pub references).

It was tough graft too. A bike that rode like it was set in concrete, two cheap panniers full of dirty laundry and whisky, and a camera that looked like it had a flying saucer trapped inside it. But it stands as my best work, even up til today.

(The picture above is a textbook example of the bad, near-death roadside photography on there, yet still carrying a disquieting air of a moment).

But. What would be different now?

Well, there’d be nowhere to drink.

But I picked up a suspicion of strangers, of my strangeness, of a much greater degree when I was doing some drifting last summer. I put that down to Brexit and the cultural/class markers that have risen around it. I was in the North-east then, around Gateshead and Sunderland. In that case, so my thinking went, there could be a wariness of being judged or labelled by a middle class liberal outsider. A justified wariness. But while I set out to question and to test, I couldn’t sense anything coherent responding. I was just drifting in and out of pubs, hospitals, supermarkets and residential areas, trying to restart or make new contacts, but …

Fading out.

Ahead to now. Three things stand out, where Searching for Albion was on the money, and where it was not.

Security and insecurity. The UN Rapporteur’s visit and the Marmot Review flag up rising real poverty, the kind the writing about gleaned, but usually indirectly. Insecurity around current or future employment, or around housing, was everywhere. This insecurity links the poorer and middle classes more than would at first seem – for the middle classes, it often relates to their children. It might seem more obviously generational – I met and spent more time talking to young people then, but I met plenty of middle-aged and near retirement people with the same real uncertainty about whether they could ensure their basic needs could be indefinitely provided for. A society that no longer offers a liveable life (being one, I would say, free of regular anxiety), and a Tory state that’s since given up a pretence of a social contract.

The journey caught some of that. But it takes deeper, much more embedded reporting. Making contacts and then developing conversations over a time, developing in slower and more responsive fashion a more substantial impression, like a painter’s brushstrokes on a canvas.

Collective life. Some used nationalism as a way of articulating a shared vision of a more progressive, democratic politics. That was in Scotland for the main. Others talked about Britishness as something multicultural, or about the working class, or about the English and their history, or a cosmopolitan human race. For me, they were webs of ideas that served a more important, human end – that we identify with others beyond just our immediate friends and family, and we draw strength from these identifications.

Where collective life is either in a neglected or derelict state, as it is in most places, then isolation and mental ill health prevails. ‘Mandatory individualism’, Mark Fisher called it later. Hannah Arendt writes about the political dangers of loneliness. Fatalism about human nature, or that others should be trusted, leads to a political conservatism and justification of a cruel, aggressive, status quo. For all his learning, the philosopher John Gray’s work always returns to this same over-familiar destination. The need for a collective life, and the need to participate and have some role in the lives of others, is something my earlier work listened to without fully understanding back then.

The environment – because what does not flood will burn. And most of us will live to reckon with the effects of inaction of the last forty years, it will slowly take hold our breath. Back then, it was a concern for some. The best work was taking place in Machynlleth, but I wonder how many of those young people (or their small energy firms) survived the years of swingeing cuts that came even after.

All are linked, particularly one and two. From that we could spin a web that takes in social class, the 2014 European Parliament results with Ukip’s strong showing, or Brexit… The last two elections have more to do with Corbyn than some now accept. But really, this is Westminster talk. The relatively non-party political tone of many back then said much more about a more decentred, untethered way of viewing the world.

But you tell me. What was left out back then, and through what would a more reliable narrator need to think (or drink) in nowadays? Send me a quick email. I’m thinking about this.

Lockdown Stoics

Teaching

I’m teaching two philosophy courses online on Mondays, starting next week:

Both through the Mary Ward Centre at a highly affordable rate (11 classes for £73/£32)

The Stoics well, because, in times like these…

But also because these thinkers, and ones I’ve grouped around them on this experimental course, have given me peerless guidance in the past. Lucid, practical, consoling, real… Alongside Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius we’ll explore the Dhammapada, Ecclesiastes, the Rubaiyat, Shakespeare, the vanitas, Spinoza’s Ethics and Victor Frankl.

Watch the first class for free below:

Society, Language, Difference is a guide for the perplexed to post-WW2 French philosophy. From the Frankfurt School and Freudo-Marxism to decolonisation, Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, May 68, women’s liberation, Lacan, all the way to Baudrillard, postmodernism and the personal computer. Exploring key texts, debating new ideas and demystifying the obscure.

Each week will involve a bit of reading (about 1h), a recorded video lecture by me available a few days before, then a 1h-2h discussion with the group of about 10-15 students on Zoom.

If you’d like to know more, just email me. These will be the last courses I give at Mary Ward, and the last public facing ones for a while.

Cosmic dancer

Living

This has been a time of unprecedently intense dreaming. And little wonder, when dreams are one of the few places in which we are free to roam.

Evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) seems to suggest that many of us have been dreaming much more intensely since this lockdown. With the old world either paused or at an end, it’s fitting that our experiences are more coloured by dwelling in places neither future nor past, but in a blurry space between. The mind-worlds of a younger self, or the shape of things never to come.

When we come to look back on it, I wonder if we’ll forget that sense of fear and disorientation that marked the period right before the lockdown began. Terror, about the safety of our more vulnerable loved ones. The panic-buying of bog roll and pasta. Experiences of those days and weeks all differ. In my house, we did all get coronavirus we think, just after the lockdown began. Fevers, temperatures, loss of taste, conjunctivitis, a cough that dragged on for weeks. Mercifully, all recovering after a couple of weeks.

I didn’t set out to write a coronavirus post, but to update you on some thoughts on where we’re going (and that I’ve tidied this blog up), but it looks like discussion doesn’t head any other way. So, maybe it is a coronavirus post. But this isn’t about learning to appreciate the free time, or about making bread, or reading clever books. A lot depends not just on your economic position, but your social one too. But I don’t think I’ve learned anything. I haven’t grown.

Our situation is different of course. Me and my partner have been working over full-time, as is usual, but balancing looking after a toddler with that has been hard. I now do childcare most of the week. That’s been nice most of the time. I have a close bond with my son, we have a lot of fun, but it’s hard at others too. This won’t be a time of productivity then, nor should it. And our situation is better than most – we’ve got seemingly secure jobs, food, a roof over our heads, family around to help.

 

Responses to how friends and family are faring are always going to be anecdotal, and that’ll always be limited by my social circles. But I do gain a wider perspective through the students I teach, most aged about 19 or 20, but a significant number between 50 and 70.

Compared to previous years, contact with my students has been less frequent, once the remote teaching is out the way. But whereas students would often relay ideas for essays and dissertations back and forth, now that work has in lots of cases slowed significantly. Some have gotten ill, but relayed more often are feelings of anxiety and paralysis as their loved ones have either gotten ill or have seemed worryingly vulnerable to doing so.

I often hear them more listless than before, unable to focus. ‘TL;DR’ is a new one to me (I hope you’re not reaching this conclusion already…)

In the background are negotiations around space, time and who they are, as many are sent back to crowded family homes that university was in part an escape from. In part, that struggle to concentrate reflects the not-knowing where it all stands. Vague, shifting rules of the lockdown; vague, shifting dates of assessments. This respiratory pandemic has thrown everything in the air.

But it comes down to something more basic – fear.

Fear so deep, fear so debilitating. Powerful and urgent feelings of fear, which reactivate deeper and older fears within us. Fears whose origin or nature is intangible, and comes out in different ways.

One of the most useful things I got from teaching a course on Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy this term (I will write about this course here soon) was her emphasis on how fear and helplessness are at the root of what makes us human, particularly in our earliest formative months and years. Out of the infant’s fear emerges a tyrannical narcissism (I see this first-hand!). ‘His majesty the baby’, said Freud wryly.

But while the infant’s helplessness and dependency is overcome through their development and away from their mothers, certainly no scientist yet has found a vaccination against our helplessness. If so, human beings would become gods.

Anger is a child of fear, Martha Nussbaum argues in The Monarchy of Fear, and it is hard to see how, out of the grave social and economic uncertainties around each of us right now – and not just here, but even more so in the developing world – that powerful forces of anger can be easily checked. There is already a hint of this in the editorial line of publications like The Economist hinting at a shift away from unregulated free markets and austerity as politically unpalatable (let alone irresponsible and counterproductive) in reconstructing western economies after Covid-19.

But this macro perspective drifts away from what’s right under our noses. Back in the mid-19th century, Benjamin Disraeli wrote of Two Englands that existed side-by-side without ever really being understood by the other. With the current pandemic, this has happened in two ways.

First, social class has had a vastly disproportionate effect on sickness and deaths. These have been highest in parts of England associated with greatest concentrations of poverty: Newham in East London as well as the North-East of England, around Gateshead and Sunderland. Both, unexpectedly, were places I have been researching before all this began. Death have also tended to be higher among older in generally poorer BAME communities. That’s not to say being poor alone is the cause: health, diet, genetics, cultural norms about family life and cultural engagement with public health all count too. But it’s significant.

Second is the lockdown and work. The middle classes have largely been protected by furlough schemes and the ability to work from home safely (doctors an obvious exception). But with many working class jobs, it’s not merely about difficulties accessing furlough schemes for self-employed or zero hour workers; it’s about the expectation that work can and will continue. Delivery drivers and shop staff, care-workers, local government services, builders and tradesmen. The Deliveroo rider, once the image of the gig economy, is doing a brisk trade around the streets of Leyton and Stratford – I see them skip the lights when I take my son out on the bike. For many middle class people, the lockdown is inconvenient, boring, but an opportunity for engaging in homely or learned pursuits – sourdough and podcasts. For much of working class England, it seems to be quite different – continued work, deeper financial uncertainty, greater likelihood of loved ones or oneself falling ill (it would seem).

No-one’s being told off here, there’s enough moralising as it is. It’s just worth reminding ourselves to be more sceptical of the images of solidarity being blasted out by Tory rags alongside an NHS tea-towel and a message from the Queen.

Consider this, below, from Saturday’s Mail. I can imagine Year 10 students analysing this in 50 years time for some school History coursework on how the ideology of Johnsonism contributed to the UK’s inept handling of the pandemic.

This front-page is the key to understanding the present and near future…

 

 

There are three things we should keep in mind here.

1) This is less the start of a new era, more an acceleration of problems of the old…

The powerful always appeal for solidarity in a crisis, we saw the same in 2008 and after. There’s no reason to think that one mid-term effect of all this huge state support for the private sector won’t result in the same levels of wealth inequality being preserved, if not even worsened.

But it shows what many of us had argued or at least suspected. In Boris Johnson’s magic money forest, the Keynesian lumberjack would be at a loss at where to begin. The state always had the ability to draw and use its vast resources to eliminate homelessness or better fund the NHS. What it doesn’t show yet is that a universal basic income is possible – western economies are able to borrow relatively cheaply compared to the developing world to finance short-term support, but something longer would involve a complete restructuring not just of the economy, but in people’s relationship and identification with work (and that is a longer way off).

But it’s interesting to begin thinking about a “great pause” or a post-2020 world in which universal well-being and power replace the competitive individualism and cynicism about human nature of the last 40 years. In the immense reconstruction and regeneration that lies ahead, there is an opportunity to rebuild politics and the economy with different ideas and values. And if hope or love does not motivate some, then we always will have fear – fear of the same mistakes, the countless dear ones lost because of inadequate personal protection, the callousness behind the policy of ‘herd immunity’, or bungled state responses.

But fear of something else that will come back every year for this decade, and for every decade thereafter – climate. The climate crisis, and what will become the increasingly urgent need to act nationally and internationally in response to a series of natural and humanitarian emergencies.

Then there is the continued problem of general inequality across the world (even if absolute poverty has been significantly reduced). And just as natural environments are collapsing, so networks of social care have too – long underfunded, undervalued, and now collapsing too. All require an immense programme of regeneration.

2) We should start to orientate our thinking

I said earlier that I hadn’t learned anything. And perhaps all that dream talk can also be explained by a lack of stimulation with genuine difference and new experiences. But that’s not quite true.

I’ve been following how people have been responding to all this in terms of their thinking. For about half a moment I had a hare-brained idea of calling everyone I have known over the past few years and asking them a question. Then I remembered I was holding a crying kiddie whose nappy had exploded and I hadn’t slept properly for two weeks.

But the question is still worth mulling: What have you learned from the past six weeks? And what’s one way in which you’d like things to change after this?

Well, really that’s two questions. And the second is too vague to answer. Yes, but it’s deliberately so, because things mean many things to each of us. In thinking about my answer, part of the conversation has been how the middle classes and upper should contribute much more to a reconstruction that has so far been better at protecting them. I mean in part the kinds of corporate and wealth taxes associated with Thomas Piketty’s latest book. But it’s more than that. It’s about thinking seriously about things that indirectly over-benefit these groups, like the housing market, or the investment of much of our pension funds in often ethically questionable businesses.

But that also means getting beyond blame or praise. It’s not about moralising or pointing out the bad people, about scapegoating some or cancelling others. It’s about living up to Spinoza’s maxim: ‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’.

Cartoon from The Economist, 25th April 2020

 

3) This is still about politics

When those Year 10 students in the year 2070 yawn and look over their screens at the list of sources and questions about our response right now, let’s hope they keep the facts at the forefront. As Professor Sarah Harper, founding director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing said in the Observer today:

“To be blunt, it was a lack of testing, a failure to shut down society in time, and a lack of care equipment that are to blame for current high Covid-19 death rates.”

Elsewhere in the same piece, a consultant cardiologist adds:

“We were arrogant … We thought we had nothing to learn from other countries and thought we were an exceptional case. In fact, we had a lot to learn but didn’t take the opportunity.”

Those are matters of politics – they reflect government decisions or lack thereof.

But it involves a wider shift, leaving behind narcissistic exceptionalism and a self-centred mentality that premises personal success as inevitably at another’s expense. Towards something that recognises that our capacity to think, act and live well is entirely reliant on powerful institutions that nurture, care and support each of us to develop these faculties. That this development is a lifelong project. That the ability to think and deliberate even-handedly and with regard to the well-being of others is democracy’s living strength.

And that when we talk about something like collective well-being and power, we’re talking about taking a path completely out of the political and economic order of the last forty years. Tearing a hole through the fabric of that ‘capitalist realism’ like that mysterious 19th century engraving of the Flammarion, venturing through to the other side. All the environmental and social problems of 2019 are still there, if also concealed by their lockdown: the environment, care, housing, secure jobs. As those listless young folk go into a post-covid job market even worse than the one I graduated in 2008, that anger will not go away.

We’re going somewhere, whether we choose to try to try and steer that or not.  As a woman in the homeless hostel I used to work in once told me, cryptically: ‘change doesn’t happen, change is’.

Hope and fear

Political

‘Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs the torments of men’ – Nietzsche

‘not to laugh at human actions, or mourn them, or curse them, but only to understand them’ – Spinoza

 

The ancient Greeks disliked hope. In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides describes it as a form of wishful thinking indulged in at immense personal risk and cost. ‘Hope, danger’s comforter, may be indulged in by those who have abundant resources’ he writes, but ‘those who go so far as to put their all upon the venture see it in its true colours only when they are ruined’.

The election has been terrible news for many of us. The reaction among friends and relatives has been like Brexit in fact – stunned, anger, despair. I’ve heard lots of blame of the working class; of the English and their racism; of the world outside of London; of human nature. On the vocal Left, which by no means represents all the Left, let alone the wider range of public opinion on politics, that this is a result of a media stitch-up; or quisling centrist commentators; that the party should’ve pushed for Brexit, or instead harder for Remain.

There’s something in these positions, but all miss the mark in my view. It was clear from researching what became Island Story five years ago that there was a very wide gulf between London and the rest of England and Wales. London is the site of all economic, cultural and political power. It has long imposed decisions on the rest of the country which have been resented. To blame the world outside London, or England, reinforces the problem. To blame people for not ‘understanding’ Corbyn is similar. While ideology in the final part explains this election result better than any economic factor, the supposition of false consciousness on the part of the voters is arrogant and deluded.

Because in the final part, for many of the voters who mattered for Labour, this was about the credibility of Corbyn. While many will blame the right-wing press, this credibility had been undermined by his dithering on Brexit and failure to appropriately deal with anti-Semitism in the party, at least going 18 months back. Then, of course, about Brexit and bringing a decisive end to three years of a deeply frustrating deadlock. When the bodies are counted later, these two factors have to be prioritised. The tragedy is that the NHS and the social fabric of the UK will unravel at an increasing rate for the next five years.

One of the common findings of the Island Story work, which the book generally under-reported and avoided discussing because of its disquieting and inconvenient nature, was how immigration dominated most discussions of place and politics all across the country. This had an obvious bearing on the Brexit vote, even if it was one among several factors (Danny Dorling’s research rightly shows that, with Brexit at least, and I would say this result, the drivers were the more affluent middle classes, who make up the majority of the Conservative vote). In the perceptive election coverage of Patrick Kingsley in the New York Times came this insight from Shirebrook, where a massive Sports Direct factory has been built over a former pit:

‘Most residents refused to work in such a degrading environment, so the jobs are largely taken by people from poorer parts of the European Union. In the local consciousness, the concept of regional decline became fused with that of European immigration, instead of neoliberal economics.’

As we’ll know, Dennis Skinner has just lost his seat there to the Tories – a staggering loss (so too Laura Pidcock). But as we’re dealing with ideology, we need to talk about class. Cap-doffing and being allowed to snigger with your betters is a decisive part of the Boris Johnson charm (or any similar aristocrat in public office). The roots of class shame, humility and the need for respectability go back at least to the British establishment’s reaction to the French Revolution in the late 18th century. But with deindustrialisation came a collapse in jobs that evoked pride, and in allied industries and incomes that furnished working class communities. London also experienced deindustrialisation of a similar numerical scale to anything in the North-East over the 1960s-70s – hence the peculiar right-wing politics that marks its outer corridors like the East, to this day. The ‘wounds of class’, as David Smail wrote about from a psychiatric point of view, and later Mark Fisher and Jeremy Seabrook, from a socio-political one. We need someone with the insight and anger of Pierre Bourdieu to explore the psychological and embodied structures of social class in the UK.

Recently, I’ve been teaching a class called ‘Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene’, where I’ve been outlining and discussing concepts for my next book. Both classes I taught have made a great deal clearer. Collectively, we ended up generally agreeing on the importance of theories of participatory democracy, like Carole Pateman’s, but there was a radical strain throughout which refused to accept any theory of human nature as somehow determining or ‘fating’ politics. The concept of the Anthropocene was rejected in favour of an analysis of political and economic structures, but we were also careful to avoid lazy moralising and pieties about the evils of capitalism that divested ourselves of confronting difficult problems of obligation and responsibility that involve each of us.

The Ancient Greeks subscribed to a view of fate, as did Nietzsche. Amor fati, love of fate he called it – accepting what was necessary, embracing it even. But that position has always been dissatisfying to me and others. To not have hope seems strangely luxurious. Hope is something we need to live, to believe that alternatives are possible and worth pursuing – hence the old Gramsci line everyone knows.

But I am not convinced either that, as Mark Fisher once wrote, after Deleuze, that we should abandon hope. The few convincing accounts of hope in my view have come from the American civil rights movement. Dr King famously said that ‘with this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope’. But I find it more persuasive in the work of James Baldwin. In his “Letter from a region in my mind”, he pleads for hope, even for what is impossible or unrealistic. ‘But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand’, for history ‘testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible’.

Spinoza is generally dismissive of hope. ‘If men could manage all their affairs by a definite plan, or if fortune were always favorable to them’, he writes at the beginning of the Theological-Political Treatise, then none of us would suffer from superstition. But inevitably we encounter adversity. ‘Then’, he says, ‘they usually vacillate wretchedly between hope and fear, desiring immoderately the uncertain goods of fortune’. In the Ethics he writes that hope is an ‘inconstant joy, arising from the image of a thing future or past, of whose outcome we are in doubt’. Being inconstant, it is unreliable, because it based not on a knowledge of actual events but wishful thinking. ‘The more we strive to live according to the guidance of reason’, he writes, ‘the more we strive to depend less on hope, to free ourselves from fear, to conquer fortune as much as we can, and to direct our actions by the certain counsel of reason’.

But despite hope’s unreliability, it is undeniably one of the things that bring together people into communities. In the later Political Treatise, Spinoza describes political change being driven by ‘a common affect of hope, fear or desire to avenge a common loss’. Because hope involves a joy, it is considered more powerful, because a joy is something correlates to an increase in our power of acting. (All the same – simply advocating joy or collective joy isn’t a consistent position in Spinoza – joy does not make us more powerful, joy instead is something we experience when we become more powerful. Empty or transient joys are no good for us, nor is voluntarism. After a rave is the comedown. Collective power is more than collective joy).

But here I think Spinoza is less insightful than Thomas Hobbes, for whom fear has greater general influence in decisions of politics and human affairs. Many of us have seen this – how fear drives people to extraordinary actions, terrible as well as transformational – as I have beside the dying and the bereaved, the addicted, and those trying to fight their way through social services and housing offices. Fear has been a part of this election. Perhaps fear of the Other – but fear of further uncertainty, of the collapse of one’s savings or aspirations to material security, of being governed by someone who does not seem trustworthy.

You will say: Boris Johnson is far more terrifying. And you are right.

Fear will cloud the next few years. Beyond this current election are the wider crisis issues of the environment – food production, the habitability of many parts of the earth, and the wars and many hundreds of millions of climate refugees forecast by the mid-century – and that of the collapse of social care and the necessity of preparing for an ageing and unwell population. There is also the pressing urgency of restoring the social fabric, and I hope that at least some of the canvassers end up exploring work in frontline charity and social support and advice roles, where a real difference can be made to people’s lives.

Fear inhibits collectivity. Fear leads to distrust, contempt for others, and a retreat within. Fear was decisive in Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the rise of totalitarian regimes, in engendering the state of loneliness in which men are ‘deserted by all human companionship’ and feel they can trust no-one.

But fear is not overcome by facile hope. Both are equally uncertain. Fear, in Spinoza’s analysis, which to me remains the best one, is overcome by knowledge of its societal causes. It necessitates what the criminally-underread American philosopher Jane Addams saw as democratic knowledge. ‘All about us are men and women who have become unhappy in regard to their attitude toward the social order itself’, she wrote of working class Chicago, where she was a pioneering social worker at the turn of the 20th century. The challenge for the progressive, for the one who seeks real social transformation, was to develop and enable others to think and act for themselves. This couldn’t be done in a paternalistic, outside-in, top-down way. It meant learning, recognising and becoming part of the same social fabric. This was what she called ‘social morality’. For Carole Pateman, writing of participatory democracy seventy years later, it also necessitates ‘social training’ – a collective education in how and why to participate in community and social life, together. ‘[T]he more individuals participate’, she writes, ‘the better able they become to do so’.

There is an opportunity here for a new kind of participatory social democracy, but it will not become clear for a while. For the Left, simply blaming others is facile, reactionary and likely to lead to a second Johnson term in five years. Recent writing mocking communitarianism has proven to be out of step. But communities, like individuals, are made, not born, as Spinoza says. We will need a new understanding of the social fabric, one that begins to read and think about leading work in sociology and economics. But one, as Jane Addams would stress, that’s rooted in understanding and participating in communities in an open-hearted, democratic way. That remains a powerful opportunity.

Back to school

Living

This week has had that short-breathed, edgy feeling, as all my teaching gigs fall into place. So many new faces and names, so many different things to try and remember. Each year my teaching load expands. I’m learning how to spin more plates simultaneously, and find myself learning more widely as I go. It’s thrilling; it’s tiring too.

At Goldsmiths’ History Department this year, I’m convening London’s History Through Literature, as well as the first year introductory behemoth Concepts and Methods in History. I’m also supervising some fascinating MA/MRes work on Georgian pugilism and the early Quakers and Islam.

At Mary Ward, I’m teaching two classes on the Anthropocene (as per last post – still some places left on the second 4pm class). In the spring I’ll teach a 12-week intermediate course on Martha Nussbaum, which I think is the first time her thought has been taught at such length and depth.

I also work at Lawrence University’s London Centre now. I’ve been designing and teaching a ten-week, twenty-class course on the impact of the British Empire. It’s been eye-opening, even for someone already on the Left. In Spring I’m back to teach the history of the Stuarts, and life and politics in 17th century England.

I’m also teaching on the annual IF Project’s class series in East London. Last week I lectured on Hannah Arendt on truth and politics, a topical one for sure, and will be doing seminars with them on left populism and political theory the next few weeks.

Some good news too with writing. I worked over the summer on a new Spinoza manuscript, completely reworking my old PhD into an accessible book. The result, Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom, will be forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press’s Spinoza Studies series (at some point).

I also got some journal articles published:

  • Bataille and Blanchot on death and friendship in Angelaki (forthcoming next year)
  • A piece on Spinoza’s Political Treatise in History of European Ideas
  • The ‘affects of resistance’ – indignation, emulation and fellowship in Pli.

I hope to have some news about other articles and chapters in due course.

Lastly, I spent a few days in Gateshead over the late summer working out my next book. I want to say much more about that project, and hope to get the chance to do so (and start real work on it) next year.

Sending love and thanks to my family and friends for their support over these busy and sometimes hard few months.

Where are we going? Philosophy in the Anthropocene

Theory

Mark Fisher once wrote that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. As evidence of dramatic climate change mounts, film and TV are awash with endless dystopian futures, contributing to an air of fatalism and resignation. But philosophy has historically demanded that we think through and beyond the apparent inevitability of our ways of life. They direct us, like Kant says, to cultivate an enlarged mentality, mindful not just of others’ positions and needs, but of alternative ways of thinking and living. In this course, we’ll explore the ideas of leading contemporary and classic philosophers to address the issues of the Anthropocene. What can Kant tell us about the ethics of responsibility, stewardship and care? How might Spinoza, Hannah Arendt or Bertrand Russell help us re-evaluate automation, work and artificial intelligence? Focused each week on a given issue, this course will draw on the philosophical tradition in novel ways, taking philosophers out of their historical contexts to explore the challenges facing humanity today.

http://www.marywardcentre.ac.uk/course/new-where-are-we-going-philosophy-in-the-anthropocene/?search=1&subject_id=175

I am running this course at Mary Ward Centre in a couple of weeks which has sold out quickly. It’s based on my new book which I began researching this summer. We are thinking of running a second class if we can guarantee the numbers, so if you’d like to come and discuss the future (and past) of the world with us on Monday afternoons, send me an email without delay: dan.taylor@marywardcentre.ac.uk. It will run for twelve weeks on Mondays between 4pm-6pm, starting Monday 23rd September.

If you don’t know about Mary Ward already, it’s a wonderful place in Bloomsbury. Courses are very affordably priced to widen accessibility – this one will be £38 for concessions. I’ve been lucky enough to teach and learn from a wise, friendly and diverse set of philosophers my three years there. The discussions are always enriching and expanding.

Christian Kerslake is also running courses on Nietzsche, nihilism and transgression; anyone who has been to these before will know the unusual care and depth of thought put into these courses.

I’m also teaching at Goldsmiths, Lawrence London Centre and the IF Project next term, and will post again soon with some recent writings.

Update (October 2018)

Living

Just an update on my goings-on, which on a professional level haven’t changed much. Since September I’ve been back teaching at Goldsmiths and the Mary Ward. At Goldsmiths I’m teaching a couple of first year History modules; at Mary Ward I’m halfway through a course on Hannah Arendt as well as the introductory classes, with a new course on political philosophy in the new year. The teaching has been a joy; it always is.

Over the late spring I finished my third book on Spinoza. I’ve got some minor changes to make on that, and then I’ll be able to share more news.

With Laura Grace Ford, I’ve been running a Mark Fisher Acid Communism reading group at Somerset House. This has been a wonderful thing and may well continue next year, where it may change form again.

I’m speaking at a few events:

  • Baroque Sunbursts: k-punk remembered on Sat 17th November at Somerset House. I’ll be co-hosting the night with Laura, and it comes alongside the launch of Repeater’s edition of Mark’s collected work.
  • “Mandatory Individualism and Post-Capitalist Desire”, for a series of talks on Capitalism and Mental Health by The Culture Capital Exchange, Ravensbourne University, 6th December
  • “Do we still not know what a body can do? Beaking down the productive body”, for The Body Productive , Birkbeck on 8th December – looks ace.
  • “Are some more equal than others? Hannah Arendt on human rights” – SLT Philosophy Forum, March next year…
  • The PSA annual conference next April on the A13 and Brexit.

Over the summer I finished a couple of papers in some new areas – Bataille and Blanchot and death, and the early 20th century British socialist weekly The New Age. A load of Spinoza work is sitting in the pipeline at various stages of completion/publication.

I’m not sure yet what next year holds, it depends on some applications I’ve made. Where are we going, Island Story’s future-focused and more philosophical sequel, remains at an embryonic stage – structured, thought-out, but no more. And one day I’ll finish the London novel, when the time’s there and it feels right.

One day… When it’s all done… One more push, get that bit of work done and then life will be so much easier, then you can relax… Yeah we all know how that goes.

‘Neoliberalism’s victory, of course, depended upon a co-option of the concept of freedom’, wrote Mark in his late, unfinished Acid Communism. ‘Neoliberal freedom, evidently, is not a freedom from work, but freedom through work.’

To everyone working much less…!

Updates

Uncategorized

The last six months have been good, if defined by hard work. Teaching has been a joy, and it’s been great to work with such bright students. Fascinating essays and some inspired conversations. Not much is worthy of self-publicity (is anything?), but a couple of updates are due.

I’m back at Mary Ward Centre teaching three courses starting next week. It’s short notice, but all are welcome and course fees are fair.

  • The Philosophy for Beginners class I’ve been running turns to the philosophy of religion and belief, from Christian and Islamic philosophy to existentialism. It runs on Wednesdays from 2pm-4pm.
  • Intermediate Philosophy: Society, Language and Difference, which turns to post-war French philosophy. Expect Foucault, Fanon, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva and Butler (and some Situationists). It runs on Mondays, between 1pm-3pm and 6pm-8pm.
  • Lastly, How to Think Straight in an Information Overload. Another new course for me, expect a mixture of critical thinking, rhetoric, critical theory and applied rationality. It runs on Tuesdays from 6pm-8pm.

My friend Rod Kitson painted these two familiar figures:

Two Brothers from Camberwell (2017)

I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Open Country programme, talking about Coventry edgelands and common land, about 19 mins in.

I had plans of writing a series of essays as a sequel to Island Story, focusing on a small number of places to draw out a common story about the futures facing the island. Still at the planning stage. Teaching has wiped out all free time. But I’ll begin in August. Thanks to people who’ve got in touch to help with the project, and I’m sorry it hasn’t got further yet. I will arrange walks and talks in the late summer, and I’ve picked up funding from the Society of Authors for it.

Between teaching preparation and marking, I’ve written a manuscript based on my PhD. It’s called Collective Desire: Spinoza and the Politics of Freedom. It’s taken a lot of time and work, though I finished earlier this week. It combines a mixture of close readings of Spinoza’s own politics, his views of servitude, political domination and fear and its relation to freedom and collective power, with some more speculative tangents linking Spinoza to more recent political and philosophical thought. There’s a lot there about desire, hope, commonality, and its possibilities in more difficult times.

I don’t know what will happen yet with the manuscript, but wherever it is eventually published, it’s dedicated to Mark Fisher. As I was writing the MS I delved back into his work, re-reading Capitalist Realism and his blog, sifting out his account of Spinoza, which the book engages with throughout. I’m going to share some the dedication that appears there:

‘I had the great fortune of being taught philosophy by Mark at a further education college in South London. His enthusiasm for difficult thinking in difficult times was infectious, and he had that rare Socratic gift among teachers of giving his students the confidence to think and express their own ideas as if they had arrived at them independently. He made our thoughts ours. He encouraged me and others to go to university when we were unsure if we were good enough, or if difficult thinking was worth the uncertainty. His prolific output on the k-punk blog brought many more of us into contact with new cultural and philosophical worlds, including that of Spinoza, while his Capitalist Realism gave a blueprint for radical change that galvanised many like me into the British student protest movements that raged in the years after. Above all, Mark was a Spinozist avant la lettre. Not only his political thought, but his warm, self-effacing yet electrifying manner all bore the manner for whom philosophy was a ‘meditation on life’, and on the very best of human life, in the vistas and vicissitudes of human freedom. Yet as Mark also put in an early, perceptive writing on the ‘inhuman’, anegoic aspects of Spinozan reason, ‘being a Spinozist is both the easiest and hardest thing in the world’. Mark’s final, incomplete thought was turning to a politics of ‘postcapitalist desire’ and ‘collective joy’, and while the remainder is reliqua desiderantur, this work is a very modest tribute to the collective joys and desires his conversation brought to life.’

 

Four Conversations

Living

I’m speaking this Sunday afternoon in London at Conway Hall, ‘Four Conversations: A United Kingdom?’, at the Bloomsbury Festival. The theme is nationalism and identity, explored from four different perspectives within the UK. I’ll be joined by Ewen Cameron, Jennifer Thomson, Daryl Leeworthy, and the audience. It’s free, and has been brought together with the intention of avoiding cliche and generating reflective, critical and open-hearted discussion. Read more here.

Conversation is an interesting thing to note in passing. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in words, picked from the printed page and chewed over. Then, for about a year, that changed, and I threw myself out into the world, and hardly wrote or read. But towards the end of the summer, while recovering from a broken collarbone, I decided to step back from that.

I came across something by Simone Weil recently that verbalised something I’d had in mind: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’. I’d stopped being able to focus without distraction. I wanted to step back, disappear underground, start to tune into and observe what was around me, without worrying about my own place within that. Switching off social media, the news, alcohol, no longer being constantly connected, and inhabiting myself, has brought about peace. But it seems against my collectivist ideals, and I wonder what to do about that.

In its space, another kind of wonder creeps in. I am lecturing around twelve-fifteen hours a week, most of it on courses I am designing (at lightning speed), and more work than I can remember. But it’s good work, the sort that doesn’t feel like work at all, a dangerously pleasurable work. In a week of constant conversation and communication, the spaces between classes and lectures and emails are pleasant. I find myself often wondering about the different worlds and futures of all these bright people I meet, who I have the pleasure of talking about ideas or events with, and of watching the sophistication of their thinking develop and grow over a short period of time. It’s hard to put it concisely, but I often wonder and daydream about the futures of people I meet. What will life do to them, or what will they do with life? It inspires much more than it saddens.

The book I hope to write, which hasn’t been written for a while – there has not been enough time, there is never enough time – will explore some side of this, politically, I suppose. But writing and classifying an idea is also a way of processing it to expurge it, get it out of your system. And I’ve enjoyed not writing, not finishing. And, instead, imagining and reflecting on the many mental worlds actually around me. I’ve come to think that finished words or polished concepts are not the final story of our minds, but a continual flux of emotions, memories and half-worked ideas. Maybe that is what makes conversation most illuminating of human thinking, concerned not with full stops but ellipses…, with stumbles, mumbles, disagreements and misunderstandings, where words might be shared but rarely do we have precisely the same things in mind.

But my word, I miss reading all the blogs and short essays of friends who no longer write! So many indeed, I wonder if it is over-work or fatigue or just having interesting lives or something else entirely which has taken the words away, like it has mine, or made us escape their confinement.