Thrift: Sigh.

It has been an interesting experience over the last few sessions as the group has read two of the biggest names in my discipline.  Harvey (1973) and Thrift (2008), each in their own way, are so large as to warp the disciplinary space around them.  I found that while I was far more sympathetic to Thrift’s position than Harvey’s, I also found myself greatly admiring and appreciating Harvey’s achievement, whereas with Thrift…not really.  The latter seemed less like a leading light and more like a grad student trying to reign in a whole host of ideas he wanted to work with but didn’t yet have the chops to handle.  Whereas Harvey’s chops are exquisite.  Thrift is sort of a Jimmy Page figure: sloppy because he is trying to do too much too fast.  I have certainly not worked out all the reasons why Thrift disappointed me, but I can offer here at least three. 😉

First, the scholarship.  Sooo many secondary sources, very often treated as interchangeable with the original.  He’s writing beyond what he has digested, clearly.

Second, the lack of empirical development of the ideas.  I know, I know, he’s done it elsewhere, or his students have done it, etc.  But the theoretical claims made (e.g. how capital is working to shape the pre-cognitive moment before action) cry out for careful empirical illustration to make the claims convincing.  Thrift assiduously avoids any such illustration (except sort of in Chapter 2).

Third, the politics.  Obviously the orthodox Marxists will accuse this-all of lacking a political edge with which to combat capitalism.  That’s wrong.  D&G (for example) are as politically trenchant as it gets.  But this book does in fact, more or less totally, lack any kind of serious discussion of another politics.  It gestures at it, promises it, and then utterly fails to offer anything interesting.  The number of times he says things like “…which will allow different, more expansive political forms…” and then fails to say anything at all about what those might be (or already are, because they are taking place right now), is so numerous there is no way to qualculate it.

So Thrift is basically restating the vitalist/affective alternative to orthodoxism without ever doing anything with it.  As we have said in group, it feels like we have read all this “a thousand” times.  And that lament sums it up: I fail to see why anyone would take time to read Thrift when they could put that time into reading Deleuze and Guattari (for example) and get far more in return.  (The most comical part of the book is when Thrift, in an endnote, declines to engage D&G due to “significant problems” with their work, of which he decides there are 5: four of which he cribs directly from a secondary source and the other of which is cribbed directly from…a different secondary source.  What a fucking mess.)

With Harvey, you get a frustratingly unapologetic orthodoxy (it has softened only a little over time), which of course has serious limitations, but at least it is done so well you can take from it what works, like the critique of capitalist urbanization, and discard the rest.  (Branden, for example, found the critique to be extremely useful in a professional-planning context.)  With Thrift, we are freed from those limitations, but it feels like we are cast into a sea of chaff with very little wheat.  To be clear, it is not that there is no wheat to be had when we push put beyond the limits of the orthodoxy, it is just that Thrift’s book is not providing it.