The books I’m currently reading (#1)

It occurred to me recently how much I like the ‘books received’ feature on Stuart Elden’s blog and that I might like to do something similar. Unfortunately he seems to get lots of books sent to him, whereas I get comparatively few.  In retrospect I really didn’t take advantage of working in the same office as the LSE Review of Books for six months. So instead I’m planning to do a short post once a month or so about the books I’m currently reading

I’ve been ‘currently reading’ The Constitution of Society and Modernity and Self-Identity for a couple of months now. The first chapter of my PhD thesis is an extended critique of Giddens and the latent structurationism which lurk beneath the surface of his late modernity books. In essence I argue that he ties himself in knots partly because the deficiencies of structurationist theory become much more pronounced when an attempt is made to conceptualise reflexive responses to social change – too much of agency is incorporated into structure and it leaves Giddens vacillating wildly between depth psychology and a view of subjectivity (at ‘fateful moments’) which comes weirdly close to rational choice theory in its view of risk calculation and life-planning. I’ve read Modernity and Self-Identity twice before and I’ve engaged quite a lot with the Constitution of Society but had never read it cover to cover. Having become rather infuriated with Will Atkinson’s facile and lazy reading of Margaret Archer in his last book I suddenly found myself wondering if I might have inadvertently done the same thing with Giddens. I’m fairly confident I haven’t but still feel I must finish the two books before I submit my thesis. Plus perhaps finish off Central Problems in Social Theory which I was actually quite enjoying but keep giving up on simply because it’s simultaneously much less relevant and much more difficult a read.

I’m reading The Formation of Critical Realism out of sheer curiosity about Roy Bhaskar as a person.  It’s a book of interviews conducted by Mervyn Hertwig (editor of the Journal for Critical Realism) and it’s definitely worth looking at for anyone interested in critical realism. I’m finding it hard not to draw connections between the ‘spiritual turn’, ageing and his theosophist parents but whatever you think about his later work (I am, putting it mildly, sceptical) it’s hard to deny his stature as a thinker if you’ve engaged even marginally with his work. He’s also one of those writers who seems to have become progressively less lucid over time so this book can provide an accessible introduction to his ideas, given that he’s able to speak about them with a refreshing clarity. There’s much more to dialectical critical realism than I’d realised but also, I’m finding it difficult to avoid concluding, much less to the spiritual turn (written as somehow who was far from complementary at the outset).

Using Social Media in the Classroom is a book I’m reading as a spur to a proposal I’m currently in the process of putting together. It’s very good! But I don’t feel able to explain how and why I think this is the case without inadvertently talking about my planned book.

Approaches to the Individual is an extremely interesting book written by a former PhD student of Margaret Archer which explores the interface between internal conversation and external speech. It’s framed in terms of ‘approaches to the individual’ within sociological theory but I’ve seen much less of this in any substantive sense than I expected given the book’s title. I disagree with large aspects of her approach (Tom Brock and I are in the process of writing a paper critiquing its application to the empirical analysis of political resistance) but it’s certainly worth reading for anyone with an interest in internal conversation. I’ve found the sections on Goffman particularly illuminating and they point to an aspect of his work which I had no idea existed.

Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life is the book attached to the current Tate exhibition. I was bought it as a birthday present but I’m going to avoid reading it until I go to the Tate show next week. I saw the exhibition of unseen work at the Lowry Centre in Manchester last week and I can’t wait for the Tate. I’ve got some other stuff on Lowry which I’ve yet to fully read (including a really fascinating biography). I’ve had the idea rattling around in my head for ages that it’s possible to identify a sophisticated sociological sensibility incipient within Lowry’s work which (usefully) seems to be periodised – thus allowing its emergence in his work to be framed by his biography (and its historical context). After I’ve been to the Tate I’m going to start trying to write this up as a paper or perhaps a series of blog posts if I don’t think there’s enough to the idea once I started trying to develop it.

Militant Modernism is the Zero Book I was astonished to realise recently that I’ve had on my shelf for years and haven’t read. I love Owen Hatherley – I’ve read his other books, much of what he’s written online and I’m bemused that it’s taken me this long to get round to reading his first book. He’s transformed my experience of the built environment, helped me articulate what had felt like a weird and irrational fascination with brutalist architecture which emerged while I lived near the Brunswick Centre (before they ruined it) and has amongst my favourite prose styles of any living writer. The other person who’s transformed my experience of the built environment is David Harvey whose Rebel Cities is, unsurprisingly, fantastic. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him discuss the contents of the first two chapters on a number of occasions but it doesn’t really bother me. Typically lucid, insightful and provocative – casually and softly polemic in the most enticing way possible, with an unerring capacity to make radical judgements sound like common sense reactions to the social world.

2 thoughts on “The books I’m currently reading (#1)”

  1. More like this please! 🙂

    I’ve been dipping my toe into CR for years. When I first started reading Radical Philosophy in the early 80s it seemed to be all about Bhaskar and I was stumped by much of the terminology. I found the Andrew Collier introductory text too daunting, but Formation of Critical Realism helped me get a handle on it even if there isn’t a great deal of theory. The spiritual turn comes as a bit of a let-down, obviously, and one can’t help but think there was a bit of wishful thinking behind it, but the book does help narrow down for neophytes the arguments that are worth taking seriously.

    Giddens’s Modernity and self-Identity keeps staring me out from the bookshelf in my living room. I’ve flicked through it a few times but always felt the need to read around it first. May now drum up the courage to attempt it given you’e already managed it twice and aren’t dissuaded from a third go.

    Thanks for this blog post. As an enthusiastic layperson, I find such advice invaluable.

  2. It was fun to write! Will definitely do this again – I’m really sceptical about the Spiritual turn. I used to read a lot of Krishnamurti when I was younger and Bhaskar seems to be essentially regurgitating K’s ideas (there’s an indirect family connection which is interesting) in the language of a not particularly clear philosopher.

    Do read M&SI – it’s a very flawed but very interesting book!

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