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Book notes (September 2019)

Immediately after I finished my MA in 2017, I felt driven to consider starting a PhD. It seemed like the obvious thing to do, like riding a bike once you’ve mastered the training wheel stage. But it soon became clear that there would be a few obstacles in the way. To name a few: a nagging uncertainty about whether anthropology would be the right field for me to invest 5 to 7 years of my life (I feel equally drawn to science and technology studies and occasionally critical management studies); the institutional near-impossibility of finding a program that would allow part-time study and wouldn’t require me to act as cheap labour for the university; and the lack of a sufficiently sustainable topic to apply with.

While doing coursework — and particularly when writing — my reading became narrowly focused and purpose-driven. For me, that was one of the greatest benefits of being in a graduate program: the nature of the work forced me to stay with particular lines of inquiry, to become an expert in the literature about something very specific. To then write about it (and doing a half-decent job of it) felt very satisfying. I generally enjoyed having to read things that I wouldn’t organically pick for myself. This was a kind of experience that was entirely lost on me the first time I went to university when I had not yet learned to appreciate the value of operating within constraints. In my early to mid 20s, I expended a lot of energy chafing at “having to” read things I didn’t think I needed.

By the end of my MA program, I did feel a certain reading fatigue, or more precisely, a growing desire to start tackling the piles of books that had inevitably accumulated in the meantime but had been set aside in favour of ethnographies and papers about research ethics.

Book piles accumulate in my office and on my night table all the time. While I completely understand that I will never be able to read all of the books that I buy — just like I’ll never listen to all the music on Spotify — the acts of browsing, ordering, acquiring, paging, “reading around in,” sorting, etc. have been essential to my intellectual formation and continue to play an important role for me. Books are visual signposts of where my head is at, what’s next on the thinking agenda, of the big and small topics that make up the project that is Carsten’s head.

I have diverse and eclectic interests but also suffer from various preference and priority constraints of my own invention that can sometimes be a hindrance. As a rule, I tend to think the most “worthwhile” things to read are philosophy, critical theory, history, classic literature, and so on. The effect is that progress through the backlog is slow, and because I tend to put fiction at or near the bottom of the list, often not very enjoyable. Lately, I’ve been trying to change it up a bit in favour of more narrative fare, be it Marco Polo’s Travels or Julietta Singh’s strange but wonderful No Archive will Restore You.

Not surprisingly perhaps, I have very few people to talk to about my reading interests. As a non-academic, I read a lot of academic fare; as a non-specialist, however, I don’t generally read “deeply” enough to really be able to dig in with my academic friends (this I suppose is generally a flaw with how academic careers are now structured and stratified). And most of my “business” friends could care less about Marxism, or historical critiques of design, or Hellenistic philosophy, or any of the other idiosyncratic foibles on my list.

Here, then, by way of a photo gallery of sorts, is a portrait of what’s currently in my “to read” book piles. Yes, there are multiple piles. Quite a few of these books are partially read. Many will quite possibly never be read any more than they already are, but for now, they’ve been judged “still current” and haven’t been filed into the bookshelves yet. Many fill me with equal amounts of excitement and melancholy because I may never fully get to them (and maybe a small amount of dread).

Book pile September 2019 - I
Book pile September 2019 – I

I.

  • Quite a lot of Marxism and politics in this one. Despite spending what feels like most of my adult life reading in this area, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. (This is like those Facebook memes where adults tell other adults the comforting and/or disconcerting truth that everyone’s faking it.)
  • I’m excited about the Balibar which I had never encountered before — it’s short and useful (Verso is a wonderful publisher, and it’s very much worth it to sign up for their email list).
  • I love CrimethInc. books (there are two in this pile). CrimethInc. is an anarchist/socialist activist publishing collective operating out of the US, and their books are wonderful forays into prefiguring the world that could be.
  • Viveiros de Castro kind of blew my mind when I first read him, and so he’s stayed in the pile for the better part of a year now to take a closer look.
  • You’ll see in the next images that there’s also a “distributed” theme of sorts, something to do with how I want to think about “design thinking” and “service design,” but from a non-capitalist perspective, so there are several books that come at design from unconventional perspectives.
  • Julian Baggini’s book about non-Western philosophy didn’t immediately resonate with me, but I’m willing to give it another go because I feel that I have a real gap in this area.
  • And I have only just cracked the spine on Old Gods, new Enigmas, but I am already enjoying Mike Davis’ style and thought (I’m always thrilled to find more philosophy types who are not primarily from an academic background).
  • From the first time I encountered his writing (sadly only after he had already died), Mark Fisher instinctively struck me as a “punk theory” role model of sorts, a fine theoretical mind who embraced both politics and popular culture and did so without seeming hopelessly academic, but rather vital, connected and graceful.
Book pile September 2019 - II
Book pile September 2019 – II

II.

  • At the bottom of this pile is a related “series” that illustrates my recurrent interest in thinking about the future. In the world of design, “futures” work has been all the rage for a few years now, but just like co-design and other tropes is actually not particularly well theorized. I was interested in anthropology’s take on this and began to dig around in the area.
  • More Marxist theory in various guises (Federici is amazing!), including a very daunting Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, which — truth be told — may always remain more aspirational than practical. Hegel is one of those key “gaps” for me, but I now question the wisdom of picking this classic text as a way in, nevermind how pivotal Kojève may have been for French theory in the mid 20th century.
  • Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are, of course, utterly amazing and strangely modern for a text that old (and I find these beautiful Penguin Classics hardcover editions hard to resist, although they always put me in mind of interior designers who buy up old libraries because bound books look good on shelves).
  • I became interested in Anne Dufourmantelle’s work via Avital Ronell, only to find out that Dufourmantelle, too, had recently died. It’s presumably coincidence, but apparently I like recently deceased philosophers.
  • At the top are two German books: Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Lola Randl’s novel Der grosse Garten (the big garden), in which an urban family moves to the country and buys a large yard/small farm. I don’t quite know why “nature” metaphors and narratives fascinate me so much, but I think I’m not the only one… as climate change progresses and science becomes ever more subject to political contestation, fiction and ethnography may have to step up. These, and also Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, are “books of hope,” and one should always have a few of those around.
Book pile September 2019 - III
Book pile September 2019 – III

III.

  • I’m very interested in how the left imagines the future — my sense is that the supposed “end of history” in the early 1990s robbed us of all energy for articulating what we actually want (rather than what we don’t; cf. Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, not in these piles). Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani was an entertaining effort in this direction (sort of like a communist “tech bro”), and there are a few others. It feels like an essential area to read, think and write about.
  • This connects again with my explorations in design for world transformation (rather than profit): here, among others, we have a book by Tony Fry that I haven’t read yet; Jonathon Porritt’s The World We Made, which is both a really cool idea and fatally marked by the “happy” neoliberal moment when it was written (it is essentially a narrative development of mid 21st century future scenarios); and Arturo Escobar’s outstanding Designs for the Pluriverse, as good an introduction as you’ll find on how to think about the design ecosystem and how it fits into the world (and not just capitalism).
  • Clearly, there’s more Hellenistic/Stoic philosophy here (inspired no doubt by wanting to know more as I read Marcus Aurelius, see above).
  • Adam Greenfield deserves a special mention. He is in my opinion one of the most intelligent and articulate commentators on technology (from a social science/philosophy) point of view I’ve ever read. A great achievement by a truly sharp thinker and fine writer, I can’t recommend Radical Technologies enough. Also, Greenfield’s occasional newsletter is always a delight, so you might want to subscribe to it.
  • There’s Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 which I confess I’ve never read, and finally two books by Alberto Manguel whose work on reading, books and libraries I find strangely inspirational and affirming, perhaps as a vicarious excuse for my own excess.
Book pile September 2019 - IV
Book pile September 2019 – IV

IV.

  • The last pile contains Saint Augustine’s Confessions (might have gotten a little carried away there, but I was genuinely inspired by Alberto Manguel’s mention of it!).
  • I have not yet cracked the spine on Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air, an intellectual biography of three key early figures in North American anthropology.
  • I waited nearly 6 months for Gramsci’s complete prison notebooks to arrive, having locked in an Amazon order at the somewhat reasonable price of $90. (I believe they were undergoing a reprint, and it was interesting to see how prices began to inflate before it became clear that new copies would be available at the old price. Don’t believe anyone who tells you there’s no market for books. It may just not be the kind of market you’re thinking.) Gramsci is another gap for me, but what little I know motivates me to want to know more. His work consists of a large collection of fragments and letters, and I’m curious how that translates into an oeuvre.
  • Kate Ascher is an architect from New York who produced these two lovely and compelling illustrated volumes on how infrastructure works. They are like picture books for grown-ups. In my studies, I often found that anthropologists and their students chose to talk about the modern built environment in a metaphorical way, suggesting that nobody actually knew (or cared to find out) how things were constructed or worked. I think of this as a recurring deficiency of the social sciences (just like social scientists shallowly accuse STEM people of not being curious about social and cultural things).
  • Brave New Work is the only business book on these piles. I don’t read a lot of these anymore, but occasionally someone recommends something and I take a look.

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