It’s written like a game of chess, involving two sides. It weighs up different styles and approaches to playing the game, as well as its place in literature and philosophy. I’d been interested in Spinoza’s connection to chess for a while, and this piece gave me a place to explore that as well as revisit some favourites old (Pessoa) and new (Shakespeare’s The Tempest).
Another piece on climate anxiety came out on the Open University’s COP26 hub.
It was written before the inconclusive event in Glasgow. The one thing that this piece, and another forthcoming on the same topic hasn’t yet got right, to my satisfaction at least, is the importance of framing these as political problems, and not psychological ones. And unfortunately the urgency and motivation to act among policymakers seems to have since dissipated.
Finally, here’s a video from last year with me introducing my research. Watch out for the triffid in the background – does it shift closer and closer as I speak…?
I have singularly failed to keep this blog updated with recent work. This might give the impression that I’ve been dwelling in a bunker, riding out the pandemic surrounded by tins of chopped tomatoes and piles of the London Review of Books.
That wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But instead it’s been a whirlwind of different things: putting out the new Spinoza book, writing quite a few articles and essays, some yet to be published, some inevitably to be rejected. I co-organised a Spinoza conference which was a real pleasure. I’ve given talks on Gateshead, the A13 and climate anxiety and have been exploring disinformation. I’ve been a busy, attentive Dad and partner – the deeds that matter. I’ve hopefully been a reliable colleague. I’ve been a bad and inattentive friend. Sleep deprivation is now a regular state. Over the last six months I’ve also got healthier and stronger, taking up a lot of exercise, and have gently shifted my outlook on things.
I won’t give a longer account of any of that. Instead here are details of recentish work:
Spinoza and the Politics of Freedombook I pushed the publication date of this back into January for the REF. It is still a very expensive hardback. It will come out as a paperback next year, I’m not sure when. Please email me if you are interested in a copy. I am not aware of any reviews yet. One friend has told me they really liked it, but then friends are good like that aren’t they!
2. The Machine Stops… short piece on E.M. Forster and life under lockdown for The Conversation.
5. Talk on Climate Anxiety – I gave versions of this twice, to different audiences. Here’s a version of one to colleagues. This material on climate anxiety will be turned into a published essay. Download below:
You can also watch a recording of me giving an earlier version of the paper here (that’s not me but the great Kate Schapira, below):
6. Talk on Gateshead, austerity and its impact on caregivers. Also gave this one twice to different kinds of audiences. Here’s the version to some colleagues. Both this topic, and the A13, are the basis of two chapters in the next book. Download below:
14. Spinoza’s TTP: Politics, Power and the Imagination – I co-organised this 2.5 day conference with Marie Wuth (Aberdeen) a fortnight ago. The quality of speakers and discussion was brilliant. There’s more on the conference website here. In about a month or so, it will be updated again with video recordings of some of the presentations, and some related free OpenLearn essays I will write, probably in the vein of 10 and 11 above.
On the horizon…
I spent over a month on an ambitious essay on mentalities of climate catastrophe which will be published. Beyond the Spinoza book, it’s probably the only other thing I’ve worked on in the last couple of years that really has my voice in it.
There’ll be another essay out at some point on climate anxiety. And another, on affinities between Spinoza and Hannah Arendt on the work of early 1970s French theorists Guery and Deleule (total unknowns, but worth a look). And, as works in progress, long articles on Malcolm X and prison study, on a new theoretical approach to anger and collective activity, on Spinoza and slavery, on George Eliot’s Spinoza and human fragility, and more I won’t list now. And a talk on the wonderful Jane Addams at the BSHP Conference on women philosophers in two weeks. If you have never heard of it or Addams before, take a look at Addams’Democracy and Social Ethics and find out more about this wonderful figure.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
From next Monday I’m teaching a 12-week course on the philosophy of Spinoza that’s open to the public. It will explore Spinoza’s Ethics in depth, as well as the Theological-Political Treatise and its contributions to the Enlightenment and modern political ideas. We’ll be thinking with Spinoza about nature, knowledge, freedom, contentment, and democracy. While some basic familiarity with philosophy or history with help, all are welcome. Classes take place at the Mary Ward Centre, Holborn, on Monday afternoons, with more details here.
I’m also teaching another year of my Introduction to Philosophy course at Mary Ward on Wednesday afternoons – all are welcome. Lots of rich, ranging discussions on life, death, responsibility, and the many meanings of life. And also two courses on London’s literature and London’s social history at Goldsmiths that I’ve put together, plus seminar teaching there too.
Fold Press have published a long essay of mine, with a new accompanying essay by Steve Hanson.
“A brief history of sacrifice” fuses Bataille with Burial, austerity cuts with public executions, Mauss with Facebook, signing on with the politics of self-immolation. It brings together observations on mental health, debt, wage slavery and alcohol’s consolations into a sharp attack on contemporary culture. Think Walter Benjamin on a night bus in Croydon.
It’s an experimental and dark journey in thought, and given recent events, its publication now as a small book feels apt.
Steve’s accompanying essay is insightful and provocative, and at times mordantly funny. Consider this:
We have lost the old patterns of sacrifice, and tragedy is also a victim. The new tragedy is that when the young read Beckett they see only everyday observation. That, as Dan Latimer pointed out, when they stare into the Heart of Darkness, their hair does not turn grey overnight, they get on with trying to acquire a residence with a double garage. Failure to achieve this status is not tragedy either, but a flawed or less determined character. Tragedy is the return of eugenics in soap opera form. Apollo or Dionysus is no longer the point, when the spreadsheet and the writhing televised sex spectacles exist happily in the same domus. They are now joined at the hip.
This is the second in Fold Press’s Blazer series. The first, “Clocking Off” by Steve Hanson, uses a re-imagining of a post-Brexit utopia to critique the enforced positivity and ‘descriptive fatalism’ of the current moment.
He calls for a collective clocking off, a refusal to participate in an economy that robs our time and labour to service a depressed and unequal society. He imagines a freedom that is not individual but collective. Not a freedom ‘from’, but ‘within’ and ‘for’, defined by care for the environment and for each other, where all are equal in terms of their share of time.
Out of this seething chaos, by refusing ‘realism’ as a thin description of the status quo, we have revolutionised everything.
Visionary in places, caustic in others, it’s an extraordinary essay and one that deserves a wide readership.
You can order both “Clocking Off” and “A Brief History” together for £5 including postage. Otherwise “A Brief History” sells for £4.50 all in. Order information here.
I’ve two oddball pieces in two collected editions by Pavement Books. “On Paper” is a short story, included by Jack Boulton in Hand Picked: Stimulus Respond, and “We hate humans!” is an article on skinheads and the demonisation of working class violence in Return to the Street, edited by Sophie Fuggle and Tom Henri. There are far better pieces in both collections and I recommend a quick peek, and the other publications of this relatively new press.
Francis Bacon, ‘Portrait of Isabel Rawsthorne’, 1966.
Want to hear a joke in bad taste? Here goes:
Four people are on an airplane when its engines fail: an investment banker, an economist, a pensioner, and a student. The hull catches fire, and there are only three parachutes. The banker grabs one and says “this plane is my property, it’s my right!” and jumps. The economist grabs the second and says “without smart men like me, the world would collapse!” and jumps. With few moments to spare, the pensioner says “you take the last one, I’ve had a good life”. The student replies, “no, we’ll jump together”. Confused, the pensioner replies how. “Well, the smartest man in the world took my school bag”.
A man wakes up punctually at his usual early time. A newspaper is delivered to his home, as he has arranged for every weekday morning. He completes the same washing routine, exercises reluctantly, eats the same moderate and healthy breakfast, and after dressing in his usual combination of sensible shirt and trousers, works through the maths puzzles on the paper’s middle-pages. He does not marvel but merely observes that the proper basis of the world is order, best exemplified in the logic of mathematics, the most perfect form of order to which everything else in the world ought to be transformed into. On his way to work (following the same judiciously engineered route as previous days: shortest distance x stimulating panoramas = good jaunt), he drops his paper into a bin, but on this day the wind takes it and sweeps it down the road. Another man, sleepless and deprived of breakfast in another fit of self-imposed abstinence, curses the litter-bug. He picks up the paper and reads it on a bench, covered in graffiti and dirt, some foul smell nearby on this most bleak of all mornings. Only stories of global strife and suffering: a mob in one country have attacked another on religious grounds. Irreversible climate increases have damaged the wheat harvest and look likely to send food prices and shortages up. At home, a poll finds most national citizens are against immigration and welfare for those from other countries. He curses the world, its spite and lack of generosity, and despairs of that hope he once had for humanity towards progress. Rubbing his eyes, he clambers up and shambles off, towards the familiar warmth of his unwashed bedsheets. Another sees the newspaper roll down the street again, but cannot properly believe the truth of his senses, and so assumes the newspaper is another mirage to which there is no worth in paying heed to. Fortunately another quickly behind him picks it up and throws it in the bin. He marvels at the composition of the paper, the production process involved from a tree, cut down at a specific point in time, which is then changed in form into something one has at hand, with symbols, language, millennia of humans struggling and succeeding concept by concept, symbol by symbol, to advance collectively towards mutual understanding and collective social advancement through technology. He explains this to his friend, who wonders about who produces the newspaper, the labour conditions of the timber-yard, printers and press office, and the persons to whom the profit of that paper is yielded to. He is furious when he realises, after careful accountancy and analysis, that the surplus of each grafter has been ruthlessly expropriated by distant figures involved in diddling the digits. But the first man cannot get his mind beyond the sheer immensity of this productive process, until he gets confused, so confused, and decides to stick with what he knows, which is whether the symbols can be said to be true or not, whether one can know anything of the smallest one at all. He falls behind his friend, falls behind his words and his times, until he decides it best to speak not of what this thing is (which was once, alas, a newspaper), but only of what it is not, which is not not a thing. He sighs. Two women pass and one asks the other why men alone are given the time, and salaries, to talk about these questions. The other says it’s all without meaning. They’re almost knocked over by a man hurrying up the street in the clothes of another country, who sees not the paper nor the people but only the immanent, intense song of his panicky twitchy nerves, which he names after an old mythic being, singing through his nervous system like la la la la la.
I’m temporary leaving the companionship of Spinoza and band rehearsals to give three talks on contemporary politics. It’d be nice to see people at Housmans in particular on 11th Sept.
“Perverted by language: British political discourses of fairness, opportunity and security in the midst of financial crisis”, at the European Sociological Association 11th conference 2013, Turin, on 29th August. Unfortunately it has a few quotes in from Tony Blair, David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith – sorry. www.esa11thconference.eu
“For what use is a “fickle and inconstant” multitude? Striving, self-knowledge and collective desire in Spinoza’s political philosophy”, SEP-FEP 2013, CRMEP, Kingston University, 6th Sept. Spinozan pessimism, constitutional politics and the physics of unanimous collective power. http://fass.kingston.ac.uk/activities/item.php?updatenum=2459
“Six months on, what’s changed? Negative Capitalism, a discussion” with me and Mark Fisher at Housmans, London, at 7pm at 11th September. What’s changing, what ways forward, what next? £3 entry but redeemable against any purchase http://www.housmans.com/events.php
If you’re interested in any of these and want to see draft papers/notes, just email.
The collection offers more incisive and nutritious fare aside from my manic ‘thirteen assertions’ on digitised economies (it’s hard to hold a straight face in a tongue like mine when you’re talking of theses). I urge any bored and restless reader to get a copy of the collection for the excellent pieces by Steve Hanson, Robert Galeta, Lee Hassall, Robert Upton and Simon Ford. And for only 77 pence via Amazon Kindle (click here), this is probably the cheapest publication I’ve been involved in since the heyday of J’en ai Marre issue one…