Category Archives: Book Reviews

Kay Anderson on “Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action” by Gerda Roelvink

Gerda Roelvink, Building Dignified Worlds: Geographies of Collective Action, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2016, 232 pages, $25 paperback, $87 cloth, ISBN 0816683174.

roelvink_building dignified worlds_667_1000Building Dignified Worlds is the first in a series of works examining “Diverse Economies and Liveable Worlds” under the editorship of J.K. Gibson-Graham (among others). Tracing the making of such “worlds” by diverse forms of collective action, the book is interested not so much in documenting those forms according to a pre-set analytical template as eliciting the associations through which collective action enacts change.

With an exploratory more so than explanatory tone, Roelvink’s writing effortlessly carries the reader from beginning to end. It’s a style or disposition that achieves its affective intensity in working away from the “thinking techniques,” as she calls them, of “strong theory.” These are the “habits of critique” that the opening chapters carefully show (after the likes of Latour and Gibson-Graham) derive their logic by exposing a singular oppressive force behind manifestly variable instances of neo-liberalism. She avoids, then, the familiar critical maneuver of exposing the “deep-dark-below workings” of an apparently inexhaustible global capitalism that centers the working class as the heroic subject of resistance. Taking the view that such modes of critique stunt the knowing, imagining and creation of alternativesand so, paralyze not just intellectually-conjured options but also the actual embodied struggles of “concern groups”she sets about tracking various situated projects of socio-economic transformation that convey precisely the vulnerability rather than unrelenting stability of neo-liberalism.

This is the “reparative” stance of “weak theory,” which Roelvink defines as a mode or practice of “assembling and disassembling concerns, people and things in political space to generate new economic possibilities.” After Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Timothy Mitchell, among others, Roelvink emphasizes the performative, both in the constitution of social life and in the activity or practice of research itself. Specifically she wants to traceand through research participate in conveningrelationships as they bring “acts of concern” into being. This entails charting, and thus helping to enact, geographies as they are forged in ad-hoc and untested coalitions (more so than groups with traditionally clear political identities). Roelvink calls these collectives “experimental assemblies” that attempt to bring into being new economic agendas.

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Derek Congram on “Digging for the Disappeared; Forensic Science After Atrocity” by Adam Rosenblatt

Adam Rosenblatt Digging for the Disappeared; Forensic Science after Atrocity, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2015, 304 pages. $24.95, paperback, ISBN: 9780804794916.

rosenblatt_digging for the disappeared_795_1200In Digging for the Disappeared, Adam Rosenblatt examines the work of forensic anthropology teams in the context of criminal and humanitarian investigations of mass killings. His stated goal is to relate and scrutinize the politics and ethics of the forensic investigation of mass graves. Until very recently, this fairly young practice has mostly been represented by trope-heavy media stories that laud the good, but refrain from exposing potential problems in the process. The facile, lop-sided representation presumably stems from a taboo over finding flaw in an overall noble and also uncomfortable process: the exhumation of bodies, victims of atrocity crimes, from clandestine graves.

As a participant observer and humanity scholar, Rosenblatt gives us a rigorous, engaging, and edifying review of forensic investigations of these graves, the bodies within, and the community of stakeholders. With the exception of the multi-authored Necropolitics, by Francisco Ferrándiz and Antonius Robben, which was published two months after Rosenblatt’s book, previous work on the same subject is context-specific (e.g., Wagner, 2008 on Bosnia; Ferrándiz, 2013 on Spain). Digging for the Disappeared covers the development of a burgeoning movement and discipline across several continents. In the introduction Rosenblatt quotes from one of his interviews with the founding father of international forensic anthropology investigations, Clyde Snow: “I’m not a human rights activist. I’m a scientist. I’m an expert. If I have a philosophy, it’s that I’m anti-homicide” (page 18). Rosenblatt challenges these deflections in an exploratory, rather than interrogatory way and throughout the book he convincingly demonstrates how his subjects’ actions demonstrate a victim family-centred, activist-minded scientific practice that borders on betrayal of the cold, unemotional, and politically dis-engaged persona projected by many forensic anthropologists themselves.

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Lisandro E. Claudio on “Metroimperial Intimacies” by Victor Román Mendoza

mendoza_metroimperial intimacies_1200_1800In the conclusion of Metroimperial Intimacies, Victor Roman Mendoza narrates the remarkable story of Jack Bee Garland. Garland, born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta, was a female-to-male crossdresser from San Francisco, who became a reporter for the Evening Mail. Jack, “to be vulgarly presentist” (emphasis Mendoza’s), was something of “a gay mixed-race Chicano transman” (206)—a seemingly radical figure, especially in the context of queer historiography’s search for pioneers.

And yet Bean’s desire for adventure and male companionship landed him a job as a nurse and interpreter for the U.S. imperial army during the Filipino-American War in 1899. That war, as is now increasingly acknowledged, was genocidal, and Bean’s involvement in it complicates archival quests for sexual forebears. Who are Bean’s legatees? Queer activists? Or militarist advocates of American exceptionalism?

Bean’s contradictions, indeed, drive home the need for “tracing histories of sexuality in the United States” “that take into account the messiness of racial formations at the fin de siècle…” (3). This messiness was evident in the various ways American colonialism interpreted the sexualities of the insurgent natives they were colonizing. On the one hand, they were “brute male insurrectos,” but, on the other, they were “the passive feminine partner” in the marriage of William McKinley’s “benevolent assimilation” (25).

Mendoza’s historiography unfolds the ambiguities of sexuality in the colony. It is a process that requires deftness, and the author uses all the tools at his disposal to find the queer in the colonial: rereading of the archive, parsing insinuation, and, of course, bloc-quoting the psychoanalytic Zizek. By and large, the author is successful.

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Ian Klinke on “On Schmitt and Space” by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan

Few 20th-century political philosophers have caused as much of a stir in the early 21st century as the controversial German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Notorious for his intellectual and personal entanglements with the Third Reich, Schmitt has gained increasing popularity on both sides of the political spectrum. Whilst the European new right has hailed him as a source of inspiration in their struggle for a pan-European civilisation, the left has applauded his deep comprehension of sovereignty and liberal imperialism. Others, however, have been much more critical as to the theoretical and political purchase of Schmitt’s work. It is within this ongoing debate that we need to situate Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan’s On Schmitt and Space.

Published with the innovative “Interventions” series at Routledge, Minca and Rowan set out to present Carl Schmitt not primarily as a philosopher or legal scholar – but as a spatial thinker. They argue that space is more than just a conceptual theme that Schmitt developed in the later stages of his career, but a crucial interpretive key to Schmitt’s entire oeuvre. This conceptual discussion is cleverly contextualised both with reference to Schmitt’s biography and the political evolution of the German state in which Schmitt lived and wrote.

In developing the argument about the inherent spatiality of Schmitt’s thought, the authors take us on a roughly chronological journey from Schmitt’s earlier work on the concept of the political via his critique of liberalism to his late work on spatial revolutions and the nomos (spatial order). We are informed about the ways in which Schmitt defines sovereignty in relation to the exception, and about the difference between telluric and motorised partisans. We learn about his problematic attempt to legitimate Nazi expansion through his concept of Grossraum (greater space) as well as his inability to comprehend the post-WWII world and his subsequent retreat into theology.

Whilst On Schmitt and Space thus serves as a (very readable) grand tour of Schmitt’s thought, the book offers much more than just an introduction. Firstly, it traces meticulously the recent renaissance of Schmitt in academic circles and highlights some of the fascinating ways in which Schmitt is claimed on different sides of the political spectrum. Secondly, it prompts us to consider Schmitt as a biopolitical thinker. It reveals how he defined the political as a boundary producing practice that functions to form the body politic by including some forms of life and excluding others. In marking this move as biopolitical, Minca and Rowan make it difficult to disassociate the earlier and later parts of Schmitt’s oeuvre from the project of racial annihilation that the Nazis unleashed in the name of the Volk (people). Although much of the book presents Schmitt as a tragic figure whose concepts are either too slippery or too politically tainted to be useful today, Minca and Rowan do note the allure and usefulness of some of his ideas.

Whilst my reactions to this book are thus overall very positive, I would like to share a few critical reactions that arose when reading On Schmitt and Space.

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Michele Lancione on “Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin” by Alexander Vasudevan

vasudevan_metropolitan preoccupationsThere are two main streams at play in Alexander Vasudevan’s latest book, Metropolitan Preoccupations: The Spatial Politics of Squatting in Berlin. The first is about the cultural and political geographies of squatting in the city, of which this text, as the author reminds us, represents the first book-length study available. The second is about the analytics that Vasudevan employs to narrate those stories and geographies. If the former makes for a very informative read and an invaluable resource for further studies on Berlin, it is within the latter that the true merit of this text resides.

This book is not simply about “squatting” in Berlin. Rather, it is a masterful exercise in geography: the careful tracing and detailed writing of histories, events, bodies, materialities and atmospheres and of their nuanced capacities, debris, and paths. To some extent, this is a textbook. In reading it we can perceive the excruciating dedication of its author in avoiding over-theorisations; in trying to narrate occupation as a universe of heterogeneities rather than only through the voice of its leaders; in laying out a history that is also a geography, and a geography that takes its historical lineages seriously. Maintaining a clear analytical lucidity throughout the dense 242 pages of text in this monograph, as Vasudevan does, is not an easy task, and he deserves praise and attention.

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Lindsey McCarthy on “The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States” by Craig Willse

willse_value of homelessness Lindsey McCarthy reviews Craig Willse’s monograph The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States (University of Minnesota Press 2015).

Craig Willse’s book The Value of Homelessness confronts the everyday, taken-for-granted, and accepted wisdoms surrounding housing insecurity and deprivation in the United States. It confronts us too, as well as forcing us to confront those from whom we frequently turn away. From the stark book title and cover image to the powerful prose and theory, The Value of Homelessness: Managing Surplus Life in the United States inspires us to ask different questions about housing deprivation. The term “surplus life”—a darker, Foucauldian variation of the Marxist notion of surplus labour—directs our attention to the parallels between those intentionally kept out of the labour market to drive up competition for low-wage jobs under capitalism and those assigned to the category “homeless,” who are made into economically and socially productive matter. For Willse, housing deprivation is not an unintended consequence of but a way to make room for the “urban consumer economies of neoliberal capital” (page 11).

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Review of Liisa H. Malkki’s The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism

Malkki_Need to HelpRitu Mathur reviews Liisa H. Malkki’s monograph The Need to Help: The Domestic Arts of International Humanitarianism (Duke University Press 2015).

To remove the varnish from the “gloss” of humanitarianism this book poses a simple question: “who ‘the needy’ are in the humanitarian encounter”? The thoughtfulness with which this question is posed demonstrates Liisa Malkki’s unwillingness to take assumptions about the neediness of the Global South for granted. On the contrary she situates her ethnographic fieldwork in Finland: a country known for its neutrality, where a large number of the population devotes its time to voluntary service and the Finnish Red Cross holds special influence and prestige.

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Spatializing Blackness: Syedullah on Shabazz

Shabazz_Spatializing BlacknessJasmine Syedullah reviews Rashad Shabazz’s monograph, Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

Rashad Shabazz’s Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago maps a historical landscape of the everyday contradictions of Black life, laying bear the blind corners and liminal spaces of “possibility and punishment”—the places of precarity, criminalization, and confinement so many call home (page 69). Drawing out both the causal and structural links that conjoin the underdevelopment of Black neighborhoods and the captivity of incarceration, Spatializing Blackness argues that even before Black men enter the prison system they are already inhabiting the prison-like environments and carceral politics of the prison industrial complex in their everyday lives. Shabazz situates his study in his hometown of Chicago, in the seven-by-one-mile stretch on the city’s South Side, an area colloquially known as the Black Belt. His genealogy of Black masculinity begins in the late 1900s and traces the layers of deeply sedimented social, political, and physical containment that define the contours of race and gender formation in the geopolitics of a city notorious for the terrific tragedy of its racial tensions.

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Two reviews of Haim Yacobi’s Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography

jacobiTwo reviews of Haim Yacobi’s Israel and Africa: A Genealogy of Moral Geography (Routledge, 2015) by Sherri Plonski and Kareem Rabie are now posted on the open site.

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