As a further biographical snapshot, here is a piece I wrote for the Goldsmiths Sociology 50 Open Books event. We were asked to write a short piece on what we were reading at the moment:
I’m beyond busy. I currently have four paid jobs, to respond to living costs and travel costs. I teach at Goldsmiths on Thursdays, and at other times at the University of Salford. I work at the University of Bradford two days a week, and on a research project for COMPAS at Oxford. The overspill from all this is huge.
So I am never ‘reading something’, although I am always reading something. The idea of starting a book, and then languorously sinking into it until the conclusion arrives, is a complete non-starter at the moment.
However, I have just written and submitted two papers, one on the riots, and another on an archive of photography. I’ve been through research on the London Olympics, and I’m about to start mining literature on technology and identities. I have revisited Manuel Castells, Levi-Strauss, semiotics and structuralism, to prepare myself for teaching next week.
But to respond to this brief honestly, I have to admit that the only thing I can practically do outside my ‘essential activities’, which also includes various domestic tasks, emergencies, travelling, and moments of complete exhaustion, is to read poetry.
I return to the New York poets most often. Recently, my friend Robert Galeta generously sent me an original copy of Frank O’Hara’s ‘Belgrade, November 19, 1963’, which is an amazing thing. Its staples are beautiful. So I’ve been reading that, but most often I wake to the alarm with John Ashbery’s Selected Poems (Carcanet) somewhere near my face.
Ashbery’s work is very open, it is ‘about something’, at the same time as it gives the reader room to re-inhabit his landscapes. And they are wonderful, recharging landscapes, full of light and potential, despite being darkly political at times.
A few nights ago I made it all the way through his poem ‘Saying It To Keep It From Happening’:
Some departure from the norm
Will occur as time grows more open about it.
The consensus gradually changed; nobody
Lies about it any more. Rust dark pouring
Over the body, changing it without decay –
People with too many things on their minds, but we live
In the interstices, between a vacant stare and the ceiling,
Our lives remind us. Finally this is consciousness
And the other livers of it get off at the same stop.
How careless. Yet in the end each of us
Is seen to have travelled the same distance – it’s time
That counts, and how deeply you have invested in it,
Crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it were
The same as making it happen. You’re not sorry,
Of course, especially if this was the way it had to happen,
Yet would like an exacter share, something about time
That only a clock can tell you: how it feels, not what it means.
It is a long field, and we know only the far end of it,
Not the part we presumably had to go through to get there…
So much sociological and philosophical thinking is compressed into a line like ‘crossing the street of an event, as though coming out of it were the same as making it happen.’ The brevity of these poems is crucial, for my current circumstances, ‘people with too many things on their minds, but we live, in the interstices’. Of course, for those of you familiar with him, Ashbery writes very long poems too. He once explained that his extended works are ‘diaries or logbooks of a continuing experience’, and that they cover more territory. But for me, his shorter works are also vast. They compress so much. Last night I revisited ‘Purists Will Object’, and its diagnosis is as politically incisive and contemporary as its language is musical and open:
We have the looks you want:
The gonzo (musculature seemingly wired to the stars);
Colours like lead, khaki and pomegranate; things you
Put in your hair, with the whole panoply of the past:
Landscape embroidery, complete sets of this and that.
It’s bankruptcy, the human haul,
The shining, bulging nets lifted out of the sea, and always a few refugees
Dropping back into the no-longer-mirthful kingdom
On the day someone else sells an old house
And someone else begins to add on to his: all
In the interests of this pornographic masterpiece,
Variegated, polluted skyscraper to which all gazes are drawn,
Pleasure we cannot and will not escape…
In the end, Ashbery is a very fine replacement for all the sociology and philosophy monographs I might read at the moment. And from inside my equally compressed momentary tunnel I ask, how might we write sociology like John Ashbery, in a way that is both very open and politically purposeful?
If you want any more information about me, get in touch. However, Nyx, the Goldsmiths CCS publication, ran a fairly rambling, unedited interview with me, in their series of Cultural Studies Occasionals, not too long ago. That can be found here:
The Goldsmiths Sociology 50 Open Books page can be found here:
My earlier blog, which was active from around 2006 to 2016, ten years, can be found here:
It is much more speculative though, a kind of live notebook, hence the title.