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.


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.