DJ Thrift

Extending Mark’s dissatisfaction of the overall depth/lack of empirical work of Non-Representational Theory, I, too, find much to grumble about (and maybe it’s because I had my hopes set too high? Damn affects.) There are a number of things that I found frustrating, and I’m not going to take the time to number the points neatly, only to thinly elaborate on them. Instead, I’m going to write big sloppy paragraphs, and I’m going to let you, dear reader, do the work. One, because we all know you can and need to, and more important, even if I say what is interesting, you may find that my list doesn’t match what you perceive to be a weakness, or maybe you would make two points out of one of mine. We all know that the reader is an active interpreter. So why the hell does Nigel obsess so much about making sure all his points are clearly labeled? Maybe he’s anxious about his overly vague explication of a new plane of immanence (though not discussed as such) not being properly read and understood by his rarefied intellectual audience? Whatever his reasons, he clearly compulsively lists lists. At one point, I think just one, he describe two independent things that were not listed out, and yes, I picked up on each of them, thanks to the help of the ‘both’ blank ‘and’ blank as an interpretive signal. There is too much intellectual hand-holding, perhaps bordering on an authoritarian, sanctioned ‘take away’ message.

Scholarship. During our last meeting (ch 5-7), one of the things that we discussed was the role of citations, and Thrifts penchant for talking about one author, like Deleuze, and then going on to quote a secondary source. I was thinking aloud when I posited the question, ‘so if I encounter a source via Thrift and later use it, should I cite Thrift, since it was his work that led me to the source?’ In a sense, I was trying to figure out why he would quote so many secondary sources. I mean, surely, he has read Deleuze, de Certeau, etc., if he was using their ideas; so why wouldn’t he cite the actual material, and maybe an end note to point to the original source of inspiration? I suppose part of it was an attempt to figure out disciplinary differences in terms of established norms of citation, curiosity more than looking for an answer. By the last chapter, I found myself really wondering if he had read the material. He talks around Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari continuously, but some actual concepts/ideas that they have already articulated may have prevented his stumbling through some explication as part of his larger theoretical agenda. I found my margin notes saying, well D & G would call this ‘transversal communication’ or ‘wouldn’t this be desiring production?’, or perhaps most importantly, his final conclusion includes an attempt to articulate the formation of a new condition (plane of immanence) from which ‘different, more expansive political forms’ can be built. (253) He does not use that language as such, but What is Philosophy is in the bibliography, and I’m not sure how that doesn’t warrant a footnote discussing this concept that runs through much of both D & G’s and D’s work, unless he wasn’t very familiar with the text. I mean, musicians aren’t creating new notes. They are making new combinations. Pointing to this language, I think, would have helped him make clearer points and allow for further elaboration, which the text desperately needs.

In the last chapter, he recaps affect theory yet again and moves to articulate some of the currents that are running through the various schools using affect theory. His second current is ‘spatial thinking’, one apparently associated with Deleuze, he neither explicates what he might be drawing from, other than ‘cf. Buchanan and Lambert’, quotes a secondary source that describes how Deleuze’s thinking has a spatial quality that is neither linear, temporal, reflexive, etc., and then proceeds to say that he will not be using Deleuze, but will use three others. First, it’s fine, don’t use Deleuze. But if you are going to bring him up, then at least offer a reason why his thinking doesn’t go far enough. While criticizing D’s footnoting of Tarde, he dismisses him with a one-liner. But if Deleuze’s explication of ‘sheets of time’ isn’t incredibly spatial and robust… Anyway- I think dismissing the ‘limits’ of Deleuze’s thinking warrants a paragraph of an explanation, at the very least. And I guess my last jab, given that this is a book about ‘affects’ and Spinoza is such an important figure, overall, his absence is egregious (though he cites from the Ethics, he doesn’t have it in the bibliography…). Throughout the last chapter, Spinoza would have certainly helped make his argument far more concise, especially when he attempts to articulate ‘imitation of the affects’, as well as ‘therapies’ that help us deal with them. It has been said, and using existing language seems efficient, given the scope of his project. To be fair, I think he is doing something complex, attempting to sketch out a new theory of the current milieu, which is difficult to prove and all we can do is point to things that support the larger idea being communicated. It does make it speculative, sure. But there should be a host of empirical evidence that would make this less ‘vague’, a little more concrete, convincing. His pointing is at theories that support his argument, but he still needs a concrete world in which to support his theorizing. So, if the concepts have already been articulated, doesn’t it make sense to point to those concepts as part of the broader articulation? This would give more space for pointing to concrete manifestations. Simply stating:
“Fourth, a whole array of corporate internet-related techniques, from websites to blogs have been used to tap in to and work with voters’ concerns. The idea is to maintain constant contact with voters and to mobilize their concerns to political ends.”
The entirety of the paragraph. I want more, something substantive. In fact, as I look through my margin notes, clearly I’ve gotten crabby with him, for it includes too many ‘such as?’, ‘more’, ‘elaborate please’….

I am also thinking about his penchant for absurd block quotes. I realize I’m dogging him, maybe a little too much, but I think it will help me take this post full circle, long and sloppy as it is. His long block quotes, end notes with long block quotes, leaves me, the reader, in a funny position. One the one hand, he holds my hand with all his lists, not trusting me to pull out his main points. But on the other hand, he gives me giant block quotes, expecting me to pull out all of the information that is essential to his argument. If his argument was full of examples, maybe this would be illuminating. As an interpretive reader, I don’t really want to read long snippets from another text; give me a short passage, but elaborate on how it applies to the theory. Synthesis. I’ll read the text if I’m interested. And I’ll read all of it. And I’ll pull out what is interesting, rather than sampling a second hand account of what someone like Deleuze is up to, only to decide his thought is too limiting. There are countless examples, but I’ve gone on too long.

I think my point in all of this, the citations, block quotes, lack of depth, is that his work begins to resemble the work of a DJ. Creative in their own right, DJs actively sample material, and sample samples, to construct a song, album, an overall aesthetic; the material has a little original construction, but the layering of samples blend together to form a coherent whole. Really good DJs create a world through their layers of sounds; the richness of layers takes simple samples and lets them stand as work in its own right. Second rate DJs sound a little clunky, thin or tinny; sure, they have some good passages, but as a whole, it doesn’t quite resonate the way really solid work does. We know it when we hear it. Audiophiles can pick out the layers, pointing to this or that artist; the early DJ movement sampled original source material; new DJs sample everything, including other DJs. Sampled samples. Secondary sources.

Keith calls Thrift a theory tourist, and I think that’s right too. But it’s also reminding me of What is Philosophy, when D & G discuss the role of the philosopher. The role of the philosopher is not to think the thoughts of those that preceded him; but to think like them. Merely thinking the thoughts, or applying them, makes one a functionary; thinking like them, a creative endeavor in which one thinks through existing concepts in order to expand thinking, is a philosopher. This also makes me think of de Certeau, and his chapter “Reading as Poaching” in The Practice of Everyday Life, in which he discusses the agency of the reader, the interpretation and meaning that is constructed through the reader. While the author can attempt to sanction the meaning of their text (ie., lists), what the reader does with the material is both unknown and outside their control. I see Nigel both attempting to sanction meaning of his own text, while at the same time, not exploring the richness of the original material so that he can think through their concepts. His reliance on the secondary sources to encapsulate the work in question limits his work, as the concepts become merely application. The overall whole of Non-Representational Theory feels as it was constructed: disparate articles put together to create a semblance of a whole. But he samples himself by citing articles that were previously written, but subsequently included in the book, repeats key points without giving a shortened version, and his conclusion feels inconclusive- which is likely his preference- but pulling together the themes of the book, its implications for the political, deserves more than 3 pages. He hasn’t constructed an expansive world through his theory traveling, and his application of concepts to illustrate his point falls short without the richness of the details.

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Driving in the City

As previously posted, we are currently reading Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory. It has a sexy subtitle: Space | politics | affect, and having just come off of a quarter of tangling with Spinoza, thinking that everything is ‘political’ in general, and being in a program that is decidedly spatially oriented, what’s not to like? There are plenty of good things, to be sure. Some of it feels very familiar; but in many respects, he has a quietly political- political, not Political- message that is important to hear out. (We discussed in our last meeting that the chapters thus far seem to lack a critical, political stance, but perhaps this emerges in the third installment…) We are only a third of the way through the book, so I’m going focus on a particular chapter. Given that the chapters were written at different points as journal articles, and subsequently compiled together, with a substantial introductory chapter (and what I imagine to be a substantial concluding chapter) written for the book, it seems ‘fair’ to critique a single chapter.

In his Driving in the City chapter, Thrift takes the work of de Certeau to task, engaging in the questioning of existing concepts, properly Deleuzian, against the current milieu in order to assess whether the theory still holds true, no longer valid, needs a serious upgrade, etc. The bulk of his argument seems to lie in the fact that driving is an activity that has been fully subsumed into our culture, and as a result, new habits, modes of embodiment, and designs have emerged that have continued to advance said habit/practice, making it all the more subsumed and second nature. As he calls it, “almost a background to the background.” (79) His project is really about bringing the background to the foreground, creating a different sense of awareness, embracing the contingency or ‘onflow’ of life; and presumably, how we can harness this awareness to find a little bit of agency within the current milieu and injecting joy or play into our daily lives. Critical for his argument in this chapter is his feeling that de Certeau is far less relevant than he once was, and that while not offering a ‘disabling’ critique, begs for a different set of questions to be asked today, in order to access the de Certeauian politics that are latent in The Practice of Everyday Life.

I think that Thrift is right to point out how much driving is part of our culture, that we are ‘one’ with the machine, it being an extension of our bodies, the changes of design (though not one mention of ‘artificial obsolescence ” and how that might inform the design process), etc. His citation of the LA study is spot on: reading it, I instantly recalled the days where it felt like I was plying my car down the 60, heading to Riverside, with the very pressure of my foot seeming to urge/move the car forward. It was not the complex computer circuitry and otherwise intricate mechanical system in relation to unleaded gas that got me there; it was the sheer will of my being that made the car move farther and faster down the road. Yes, I did say the 60.

So, in many respects, I think he’s right. But I feel like he misconstrues de Certeau’s overall project. When de Certeau talks about the hidden practices, he is engaging directly with Foucault. Foucault was busy rooting around in the archives, the visible practices that have stood the test of time and bore witness to another time and place. De Certeau explicitly states that the hidden practices don’t make it into the archive, and it’s those practices that we need to understand; not that those hidden practices are the only thing worth paying attention to… While Foucault might reconstruct an enlightening (and accurate) narrative of discipline or madness, he is constructing it from the voices that can still be heard, not the ‘countless thousands’ that are continually rewritten by everyday practices. “We need to be careful” seems to be apt advice. And while it is true that our modern devices track us; our phones let us ‘check in’; GPS tells when to turn right; qualitatively, they simply don’t reveal our affective state; what we were thinking about when the voice said to turn right; nor do they know how to ascertain the meaning when we elect to not check in at one place, but opt to check in at another. Today, I believe these become the hidden voices that de Certeau would seek to uncover. Everything else is just data.

This may seem like a small point, but I think it is critical to the overall spirit of de Certeau’s work that makes him as relevant today as he was when he was writing. The very spirit of this act of seeking out that which remains hidden allows us, the inhabitant, to construct our own meaning out of the monotony that we might be subjected to, regardless of the circumstance. Or perhaps to use Thrift’s language, de Certeau is precisely trying to bring the background to the foreground in order to illustrate that meaning can be made in the most mundane daily tasks.

I also think he misconstrues the overall position that de Certeau would take regarding the automobile. Citing de Certeau’s chapter Railway Navigation and Incarceration, Thrift posits that de Certeau would likely place driving in the automobile in the same realm as being a passive passenger in a train. It seems like de Certeau would more likely place driving somewhere along the lines of the LA driving study that Thrift cites: that automobile drivers construct their own path and in the process, construct their own meaning, in the shortcuts and otherwise tactical driving that do, in fact, occur. I still have very specific memories of tactics (and strategies) of getting through particular areas that were always congested, whether freeways or surface streets, that made me very active and engaged as a driver. It was not that I was simply in my lane and I needed to remain in that lane until I reached a particular exit. Embodying that sort of disposition is in fact, Incarceration. I think Thrift is too quick to place him in the anti-automobile camp, simply because he was so pro-walking. With walking, we can become imperceptible. Driving is still active and requires an engaged driver to navigate other material realities; sitting on a train or bus as a passenger is a wholly different activity. We can change seats, but we can’t make a left or a right on a whim.

To be fair, I do believe that Thrift is trying to retain (resuscitate?) the productive potential that I feel is inherent in de Certeau’s work. But I feel frustrated by his glossing over some of the important points that make de Certeau’s work relevant today, without even needing to ‘upgrade’ him to automobility. The spirit of his engagement is what is important; the content is interchangeable.