Books this year

At the end of 2021, I published a list of & short commentary on the books I had read during that year, partly to amplify books written by women (and non-binary) authors, partly to highlight the persistent (and intersectional) process of devaluing, ‘forgetting’, or unknowing work written by women. This list is shorter; not all books are by women/NB authors (though most are), and I also wrote several blog posts (and articles) that engage with some of the work listed here in more detail (if you’re after that sort of thing). Judging by the length of the list, I read less (some of this has to do with general exhaustion/burnout, and some with other stuff that was happening in the year, including funding deadlines, running a new project, and leading EDI in my Department). I also like to think I read deeper.

Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachel Wiseman, Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life

This eagerly anticipated book not only covers some of my favourite philosophers (Anscombe; Murdoch) but also presents a carefully executed study of the social and historical setting of Oxford (‘ordinary-language’) philosophy, so 10/10.

Oh, I’ve also read the other book on the Anscombe/Foot/Midgley/Murdoch ‘quartet’ that came out, only to check whether there was any accuracy in (multiple) reviewers’ perennial tendency to ascribe analytical acumen to books written by men, and ‘biographical’ and ‘descriptive’ detail to books written by women (which is in and of itself a kind of epistemic injustice/epistemic positioning, by the way). There isn’t. Thought so.

Christine Korsgaard, Self-constitution: agency, identity, integrity

It is perhaps a truism that if you start doing moral philosophy you never stray too far from Kant. True or not, this book was probably one of the best ways to come back to it. As I’ve written in a blog post that engages with the book in slightly more detail, over the past couple of years I have become increasingly interested in problems of normative theory – something I’ve been strongly opposed to most of my career thus far (I even wrote a PhD on why we’re prone to confuse epistemic with moral and/or political sentiments). Korsgaard’s approach to theories of identity and agency is decisively contemporary and has significant implications for how we think about the ability to choose, so it fit the bill perfectly. It is also one of the books that confirm the rule that women philosophers tend to write better than most people.

Sheila Jasanoff et al, Uncertainty

Disclaimer: I actually have a chapter in this volume, initially developed as a forum response in Boston Review (the text is part of my broader work on agency, unknowing, and resistance). I think all contributions are worth reading because they reflect the general debate about knowledge, prediction, and what science can do – and thus both its highs and its lows.

Michelle Murphy, Sick building syndrome and the problem of uncertainty

Speaking of uncertainty: I think I initially started re-reading Michelle Murphy’s famous monograph last year because of my work on Covid-19 and institutional forms of ‘unknowing’ when it comes to things such as airborne spread. Reading it, I was reminded not only how brilliant, well-written, and pioneering Murphy’s work was, but also how institutional ways of ‘unknowing’ function when it comes to access to knowledge: namely, none of the libraries of the institution I work for have this book in physical form (it is accessible in online form), despite its pioneering status in the fields of public health, STS, and policy studies, all of which the institution specializes in. The availability of physical books in the library means students may encounter it just by browsing the shelves; books available online only get discovered if already assigned to the syllabus, which already requires someone (someone in a position of power, at that) to recognize and validate the book as key, mandatory, or at least relevant. Really makes you think about the materiality of objects, that.     

Michelle Murphy, Economization of life

Once on a Murphy roll I kept going, so I bought and started reading (for the first time) Murphy’s 2017 Economization of life. It chimed well with the piece on ‘slow death’ (building on Berlant), as well as with a few other pieces on bio- and necro-politics I was writing at the time, but its emphasis on reproductive rights and reproductive justice was also a 10/10 in the year in which the US Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade.

Max Liboiron, Pollution is colonialism

OK, full disclosure: I read most of this book in 2021 but it is so good I wanted to feature it again and in more detail. Actually, detail aside: this is simply the best book to read if you are doing any sort of scientific work. Or activism. Or politics. Or just, you know, living in the vicinity of institutions of knowledge production. Just read it. Seriously.

Cara New Daggett, The Birth of Energy

This is a really good example of a careful engagement with arguments in history, political economy, and sociology/anthropology of science to make a simple but often overlooked point: the construction of much of contemporary world required the translation of different sources – raw materials, human labour, and knowledge – into energy. In addition to the reproductive politics in Murphy’s book, it was also a reminder of how much of everyday existence depends on humans just willing themselves (or being willed to?) do something.

Martha Nussbaum, Therapy of desire: the theory and practice of Hellenistic ethics

Nussbaum was one of the first philosophers I grew to like on the question of morals and ethics; this book was, in a manner of speaking, a stand-in – I wanted to buy Upheavals of Thought, which I had started reading in the (first) winter break of my (second) PhD, but couldn’t afford it in 2015, so went for this one instead. Revisiting it recently was both an uncanny experience – I was reading marginalia from my 7-years-ago-self – and a reminder of the origin of some of the key theoretical questions I grappled with and would go on to shape my subsequent intellectual project, including the role of theory in relation to practice.

Joanne Barker, Red Scare: the state’s indigenous terrorist

Thanks to Sakshi who I think first mentioned this book on Twitter. I’ve always had an interest in settler-colonial histories, including that of United States (this was, by the way, part of my undergraduate training in anthropology 2000-2004 at the University of Belgrade – you can imagine my surprise at the realization that histories of colonization are still considered ‘controversial’ and/or are not taught in many ‘Western’ universities); Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks was a formative influence on my book on politics of class and identity in former Yugoslavia, and Mamdani’s Neither Settler nor Native is one of the best books I’ve read (and keep reading) in the past three years. Barker’s book joins this lineup with a thorough take on the criminalization of indigenous resistance – something that has profound implications not only for how we think about projects of decolonizing, but also about ecological activism.

Maggie Nelson, Bluets

Speaking of reading via friends: I know and like Nelson’s work (I started reading On Freedom in 2021 despite forgetting to include it in the blog post!, and have started reading The Red Parts last year), and I’ve wanted to read Bluets in a while. The opportunity finally presented itself when I visited Marina Veličković’s flat in Newcastle, where I found it on the shelf (yes, sorry, I know I have said this already, but having me in your flat means I will read your books). Promptly purchased my own copy and read it after moving to a (rather blue) house on the North Sea coast.

I have read William Gass’ On Being Blue in 2014; blue, and versions of, are effectively the only colour palette I like (the rest of my choices, both in terms of wardrobe and in terms of environment, oscillate in the triangle of black, white, and [shades of] grey). But I love almost all shades of blue; and, of course, the sea. Though, of course, that could just be a trick of the light, st(r)uck in the same triangle between white, black, and grey.

Adam Phillips, On Getting Better and On Wanting to Change

Adam Phillips is my sort of guilty pleasure (and, of course, one of my favourite books by Phillips – in addition to On Flirtation – is Unforbidden Pleasures). In other words, Adam Phillips is what I read when I feel in need of a self-help book. Last year he published two, and although short (and meant to be read in tandem), I found them quite different – On Wanting to Change seemed like a not-too-deeply developed iteration/repetition of much of his earlier work; On Getting Better was much better (sorry), which came as a surprise as the theoretical focus of the first is generally closer to my sphere of interest than that of the second. Oh, we change.

Adam Phillips, On Flirtation

This is not only one of my favourite books by Phillips, it is also one of my favourite books in general. I was re-reading it after about five or six years – my copy is the specimen some good soul left in the ‘books to adopt’ section in the old Cambridge Sociology PhD attic – and marvelling at how little I remembered of the original reading.

Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored

What can I say, I needed a lot of self-help this year.

Lauren Berlant, On the Inconvenience of Other People

I eagerly anticipated Berlant’s last book (technically, finished and published after they had already passed) and so far it does not seem to disappoint. The last couple of years have been, for me, marked to a rather significant degree by reading (and teaching) Berlant’s work, and since this special issue on ‘Encountering Berlant’came out towards the end of the year, I am looking forward to continuing to engage it in the things I am writing at the moment.

Simone De Beauvoir, Ethics of Ambiguity

During a particularly dark period last year, I started re-reading de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity, which I’ve first read during my PhD (in which ambiguity features rather prominently). Back then, of course, I read it primarily as an argument in existentialist ontology; this time around, I paid more attention to the ethics aspect, which is exceptional – but, as I kept thinking, also relevant for contemporary discussions, somewhat archaic language aside. Given that I’ve spent years entreating people to read Ethics of Ambiguity (the usual response, of course, being “oh I haven’t read it” – most people who claim to have ‘read’ de Beauvoir have barely made it past the first 20 pages of Second Sex; this form of sidelinining/domaining is something I’ve explored here), I decided to bite the bullet and asked online if anyone would be interested in a reading group – so far it’s at its third iteration, so you are more than welcome to join!

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are you?

I’ve written about Rooney’s third book (as well as a related novella, Mr Salary) in more detail here. Given I really liked Conversations with Friends (a book I picked up on a whim, based solely on its cover and the fact I was given some book tokens in exchange for keynoting at a conference, and was determined, deep in the throes of writing my PhD, to spend them on fiction rather than theory) before Rooney became A Name, and given I did not really like Normal People after it, I was apprehensive about this one. I really struggled with the first three quarters (or more like 5/6ths), but it picked up towards the end, making me think that there might have been something about my own pace of reading/processing at the time that it mimicked or repeated.

Margaret Atwood, Penelopiad

Atwood *and* Classics, furthermore Odyssey? Yes.

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic

“The past shapes the present—they teach us that in schools and universities. (Shapes? Infiltrates, more like; imbues, infuses.) This past cannot be visited like an ageing aunt. It doesn’t live in little zoo enclosures. Half the time, this past is nothing less than the beating heart of the present. So, how to speak of the searing, unpindownable power that the past—ours, our family’s, our culture’s—wields in the present?”

‘Axiomatic’ was the first of two books I picked up in Durham’s newest independent bookshop (outstanding collection of books plus a reading nook, coffee/tea and cake). Obviously, I was drawn by the title, but it turned out I couldn’t have picked better – Tumarkin is an Eastern European living in Australia (in her memorable phrase, from ‘Eastern European elsewheres’), and reflecting on commonplaces of moving, learning, knowing, and forgetting (including trauma), in a mix of fiction, reportage, and analysis. Let’s just say I left the book with my therapist.  

Radmila Zygouris, Pasji život u bundi od samurovine i drugi psihoanalitički slučajevi (L’Ordinaire, symptome)

Speaking of both psychoanalysis and immigrant trajectories, I also read this book, translated into Serbian by one of my mum’s oldest friends. It is composed of articles and interviews with a prominent French Lacanian analyst – now in her 1980s – Radmila Zygouris, whose story (and career) combines Greece, Serbia, Argentina, Paris and Germany (!!). The book is sadly not available in English, but the closest edition is in French, here.  

Jelena Nolan Roll, O blokovima se priča (Storytelling from New Belgrade Blocks)

It’s great when one of your best friends publishes a book; it’s even better when it turns out that the book is really good, a half-magic-realist allegory of growing up in New Belgrade’s equivalent of council house flats in 1990s and early 2000s. The book is so far in Serbian only; there are book launches scheduled for Bristol (where Jelena resides) and London, so perhaps the English translation is not too far off…?

Hella Pick, Invisible Walls: A Journalist in Search of Her Life

This is the other book I picked up from Collected on a late-November strike-day attempt to recover from the combined pressures of Autumn darkness and term-time exhaustion. Pick was, for a significant part of the second half of the 20th century, The Guardian’s diplomatic correspondent. She was also on the Kindertransport from Austria. The story in between weaves together some of the most interesting parts of contemporary history (including early stages of decolonization, the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Cold War) and reminded me again – as I discovered in 2021, when reading Deborah Levy – that biographies are only boring if written by men.

It would have been great to close this year (and post) in oh-so-circular a fashion, with a biography (Pick), but sadly neither is Metaphysical Animals (only) a biography (it is, indeed, philosophy) nor are lives, blog posts, or books ever (fully) circular, so here’s instead a meta-reference to this – as well as to the book with which I closed 2020 and started 2021, A Tale for the Time Being:   

Ruth Ozeki, Book of Form and Emptiness

I have (really) started Ozeki’s newest earlier in 2022, and have (really) picked it up again only in the last days of 2022, and I (really) so far like it less than A Tale, but given that (I hope) it is – in addition to a book that is also about itself – a meta-reference to Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting, here’s to…well, not forgetting.

‘Ethics of Ambiguity’ Reading Group

This is a reading group for all those who wish to come together to discuss Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity” (1947).

The group runs in (Northern hemisphere) winter 2022-3, mostly coinciding with the winter break, and is designed to give space for open reflection and discussion of ideas concerning ethics, responsibility, and ambiguity in relation to contemporary circumstances.

The group is open to all. Philosophical training or detailed background knowledge are not required. For specs, see FAQ (1) below.

The group runs in weekly sessions on Zoom, Fridays 1-2PM (BST, London time), starting from 16 December until 27 January inclusive of Xmas/New Year’s break. This time is chosen both for accessibility purposes and, in some cases, to accommodate the academic term. If the timing does not suit you, please see FAQ (2) below.

For instructions on how and when to join, as well as how to participate, see FAQs (3) and (4). For schedule, see bottom of page.

FAQs (or, please read this before joining):

(1) Who can participate?

The group is open to all. You do not need to have a philosophical background, detailed knowledge of existentialist (or any) philosophy, or an interest in Simone de Beauvoir to participate. The group welcomes all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, ability, or any other aspect of identity; that said, the conversation is designed to be respectful and equal, so bullying, racism and transphobia will not be tolerated.

There is no formal leadership and no assumption of authority in the group. The emphasis in the discussion is on personal impressions, thoughts, and questions that the text raises for you. That said, be mindful of the background of participants when contributing; do not use references (as in, ‘in her other work, de Beauvoir…’) or name-drops (as in, ‘as Foucault said..’) without explaining what you mean in a language accessible to everyone (or, best, skip name-dropping altogether).

(2) What if the timing does not suit me?

The group is run on an entirely informal and voluntary basis. You are free to join any of the sessions at any time between 1 and 2 PM, without expectation of continuation or repeat participation. If the timing does not suit you, you are welcome to start another reading or discussion group at a timing that suits you better.

(3) How can I join?

Below is the schedule, Zoom link, and details for each session.

16 December, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 1: Ambiguity and Freedom (pages 5-35 in 2015 English edition by Open Road Integrated Media)

Join


23 December, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 2: Personal Freedom and Others (pp. 37-78, as above)

Join

[Winter break]

6 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Sections I (The Aesthetic Attitude) and II (Freedom and Liberation), pp. 79-103

Join

13 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3: The Positive Aspect of Ambiguity, Sections III and IV (The Antinomies of Action & The Present and the Future), pp. 103-139

Join

20 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Chapter 3, Section IV (The Present and the Future), cont’d, and beginning of Chapter V: Ambiguity (pp. 139-168).

Join

27 January, 1-2PM (BST)

Conclusions (pp. 169-174) and wrap-up/further plans

Join

(4) How do I participate?

Be mindful of other participants. Try not to take more than 2-3 minutes when speaking, and give priority to those who have not already spoken in the meeting. While there will be no chairing or official moderation (unless absolutely necessary), raising your hand (Zoom lower bar in window –> Reactions –> ‘Raise hand’) function will signal to other speakers you want to speak and indicate your turn in the conversation.

Your microphone will be muted by default when joining. Please make sure you keep your mic on mute except when speaking, especially if in a noisy environment. Participants are normally expected to turn cameras on as this contributes to participation and communication, but we understand there are safety- and ability-related reasons not to do so.

De Beauvoir’s book can be found on Marxists.org (link above), in libraries, or bookshops.

Happy reading!

Sally’s boys, Daddy’s girls

I’ve finished reading Sally Rooney’s most recent novel, Beautiful World, Where are you? It turned out to be much better than I expected – as an early adopter of Conversations with Friends (‘read it – and loved it – before  it was cool’), but have subsequently found Normal People quite flat – by which I mean I spent most of the first half struggling, but found the very last bits actually quite good. In an intervening visit to The Bound, I also picked up one of Rooney’s short stories, Mr Salary, and read it on the metro back from Whitley Bay.

I became intrigued by the ‘good boy’ characters of both – Simon in Beautiful World, Nathan in Mr Salary. For context (and hopefully without too many spoilers), Simon is the childhood friend-cum-paramour of Eileen, who is the best friend of Alice (BW’s narrator, and Rooney’s likely alter-ego); Nathan, the titular character of Mr Salary, is clearly a character study for Simon, and in a similar – avuncular – relationship to the story’s narrator. Both Simon and Nathan are older than their (potential) girlfriends in sufficient amounts to make the relationship illegal or at least slightly predatory when they first meet, but also to hold it as a realistic and thus increasingly tantalizing promise once they have grown up a bit. But neither men are predatory creeps; in fact, exactly the opposite. They are kind, understanding, unfailingly supportive, and forever willing to come back to their volatile, indecisive, self-doubting, and often plainly unreliable women.

Who are these fantastic men? Here is an almost perfect reversal of the traditional romance portrayal of gender roles – instead of unreliable, egotistic, unsure-about-their-own-feelings-and-how-to-demonstrate-them guys, we are getting more-or-less the same, but with girls, with the men providing a reliable safe haven from which they can weather their emotional, professional, and sexual storms. This, of course, is not to deny that women can be as indecisive and as fickle as the stereotypical ‘Bad Boys’ of toxic romance; it’s to wonder what this kind of role reversal – even in fantasy, or the para-fantasy para-ethnography that is contemporary literature – does.

On the one hand, men like Simon and Nathan may seem like godsend to anyone who has ever gone through the cycle of emotional exhaustion connected to relationships with people who are, purely, assholes. (I’ve been exceptionally lucky in this regard, insofar as my encounters with the latter kind were blissfully few; but sufficient to be able to confirm that this kind does, indeed, exist in the wild). I mean, who would not want a man who is reliable, supportive of your professional ambitions, patient, organized, good in bed, and does laundry (yours included)? Someone who could withstand your emotional rollercoasters *and* buy you a ticket home when you needed it – and be there waiting for you? Almost like a personal assistant, just with the emotions involved.

And here, precisely, is the rub. For what these men provide is not a model of a partnership; it’s a model of a parent. The way they relate to the women characters – and, obviously, the narrative device of age difference amplifies this – is less that of a partner and  more of a benevolent older brother or, in a (n only slight) paraphrase of Winnicott, a good-enough father.

In Daddy Issues, Katherine Angel argues that feminism never engaged fully with the figure of the father – other than as the absent, distant or mildly (or not so mildly) violent and abusive figure. But somewhere outside the axis between Sylvia Plath’s Daddy and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM manifesto is the need to define exactly what the role of the father is once it is removed from its dual shell of object of hate/object of love. Is there, in fact, a role at all?

I have been thinking about this a lot, not only in relation to the intellectual (and political) problem of relationality in theory/knowledge production practices  – what Sara Ahmed so poignantly summarized as ‘can one not be in relation to white men?’ – but also personally. Having grown up effectively without a father (who was also unknown to me in my early childhood), what, exactly, was the Freudian triangle going to be in my case? (no this does not mean I believe the Electra complex applies literally; if you’re looking to mansplain psychoanalytic theory, I’d strongly urge you to reconsider, given I’ve read Freud at the age of 13 and have read post-Freudians since; I’d also urge you to read the following paragraph and consider how it relates to the legacies of Anna Freud/Melanie Klein divide, something Adam Philips writes about).

In the domain of theory, claims of originality (or originarity, as in coining or discovering something) is nearly always attributed to men, women’s contributions almost unfailingly framed in terms of ‘application or elaboration of *his* ideas’ or ‘[minor] contribution to the study’ (I’ve written about this in the cases of Sartre/de Beauvoir and Robert Merton/Harriet Zuckerman’s the ‘Matthew Effect’, but other examples abound). As Marilyn Frye points out in “Politics of reality”, the force of genealogy does not necessarily diminish even for those whose criticism of patriarchy extends to refusing anything to do with men altogether; Frye remarks having observed many a lesbian separatist still asking to be recognized – intellectually and academically – by the white men ‘forefathers’ who sit on academic panels. The shadow of the father is a long one. For those of us who have chosen to be romantically involved with men, and have chosen to work in patriarchal mysoginistic institutions that the universities surely are, not relating to men at all is not exactly an option.

It is from this perspective that I think we’d benefit from a discussion on how men can be reliable partners without turning into good-enough daddies, because – as welcome and as necessary as this role sometimes is, especially for women whose own fathers were not – it is ultimately not a relationship between two adults. I remember reading an early feminist critique of the Bridget Jones industry that really hit the nail on the head: it was not so much Jones’ dedication to all things ‘60s and ‘70s feminism abhorred – obsession with weight loss and pursuit of ill-advised men (i.e. Daniel Cleaver); it was even more that when ‘Mr Right’ (Mark Darcy, the barely disguised equivalent of Austen’s Mr Darcy) arrives, he still falls for Bridget – despite the utter absence of anything from elementary competence at her job to the capacity to feed herself in any form that departs from binge eating to recommend her to a seemingly top-notch human rights attorney. Which really begs the question: what is Mr Darcy seeing in Bridget?

Don’t get me wrong: I am sure that there are men who are attracted to the chaotic, manic-pixie-who-keeps-losing-her-credit-card kind of girl. Regardless of what manifestation or point on the irresponsibility spectrum they occupy, these women certainly play a role for such men – allowing them to feel useful, powerful, respected, even perhaps feeding a bit their saviour complex. But ultimately, playing this role leaves these men entirely outside of the relationship; if the only way they relate to their partners is by reacting (to their moods, their needs, their lives), this ultimately absolves them of equal responsibility for the relationship. Sadly, there is a way to avoid equal division of the ‘mental load’ even while doing the dishes.

And I am sure this does something for the women in question too; after all, there is nothing wrong in knowing that there *is* going to be someone to pick you up if you go out and there are no taxis to get you back home, who will always provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on, seemingly completely irrespectively of their own needs (Simon is supposed to have a relatively high-profile political job, yet, interestingly, never feels tired when Ellaine calls or offers to come over). But what at first seems like a fantasy come true – a reliable man who is not afraid to show his love and admiration – can quickly turn into a somewhat toxic set of interdependencies: why, for instance, learn to drive if someone is always there to pick you up and drop you off? (honestly: even among the supposedly-super-egalitarian straight partnerships I know, the number of men drivers vastly outstrips that of women). The point is not to always insist on being a jack-of-all-trades (nor on being the designated driver), as much as to realize that most kinds of freedom (for instance, the freedom to drink when out) embed a whole set of dependencies (for instance, dependence on urban networks of taxis/Ubers or kind self-effacing mensaviours there to pick you up – in Cars’ slightly creepy formulation, drive you home).

Of course, as Simone de Beauvoir recognized, there is no freedom without dependency. We cannot, simply, will ourselves free without willing the same for others; but, at the same time, we cannot will them to be free, as this turns them into objects. In Ethics of Ambiguity – one of the finest books of existentialist philosophy – de Beauvoir turns this into the main conundrum (thus: source of ambiguity) for how to act ethically. Acknowledging our fundamental reliance on others does not mean we need to remain locked into the same set of interdependencies (e.g., we could build safe and reliable public transport and then we would not have to rely on people to drive us home?), but it also does not mean we need to kick out of them by denying or reversing their force – not least because it, ultimately, does not work.

The idea that gender equality, especially in heterosexual partnerships, benefits from the reversal of the trope of the uncommitted, eternally unreliable bachelor in the way that tips the balance in an entirely opposite direction (other than for very short periods of time, of course) strikes me as one of the manifestations of the long tail of post- or anti-feminist backlash – admittedly, a mild and certainly less harmful one than, for instance, the idea that feminism means ‘women are better than men’ or that feminists seek to eliminate men from politics, work, or anything else (both, worryingly, have filtered into public discourse). It also strikes me that the long-suffering Sacrificial Men who have politely taken shit from their objects of affection can all-too-easily be converted into Men’s Rights Activists or incels if and when their long suffering fails to yield results – for instance, when their Manic Pixie leaves with someone with a spine (not a Bad Boy, just a man with boundaries) – or when they realize that the person they have been playing Good Daddy to has finally grown up and left home.