(2017) How Can We Write Critical Books Nowadays? [ENG]

Friday 18 August 2017, by Miguel Angel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English]

[Note: Perhaps it is time to give a new life to this blog with new entries. Despite I am not an English-native speaker, I will use more frequently the English language from now on so, likely, I can reach a wider audience. Feedback about my grammar or style mistakes is warmly appreciated! Instead of narrating my fieldwork experiences as a sociologist, as I mostly did before, I intend now to deal with many disparate topics and observations, according to the time and inspiration available. I finally entered in the status of a tenured position which will hopefully help to enhance my contributions to society or, at least, to those broadly interested in social sciences, beyond the marble tower of the academic machinery.]

How Can We Write Critical Books Nowadays?

I like books. I love reading and writing books. They were always an essential part of my education, curiosity and entertainment. Once I was involved in the academic career by the mid-1990s, while doing my PhD, I usually thought that authoring books will be the true goal of my work. Although I started with journal papers and got some of them published, as they seemed easy to accomplish as a newcomer, I still remember the overwhelming satisfaction of my first (co-authored) book in my hands, right after leaving the printing house. Those bounded pages were seriously intended to be a toolkit for activists about a very tricky matter for many –how to conduct meetings horizontally. And they met the target quite well. The book was reprinted many times and freely circulated online for decades. If the combination of studying social sciences and reflecting on my own political experience held any meaning, that book perfectly represented the sort of achievements I aimed as an academic. The following three books I wrote as extensions of my PhD dissertation had a more conventional style, with a lot of theory and sociological analyses. However, they still were nurtured with a critical approach to social sciences which for me, shortly, means that they should supply food for thought and for action. More specifically, I aimed at producing knowledge with a solid historical background and a deep understanding of the social relations and processes underlying the topics under my examination (power structures in general, participatory planning and squatters’ movements in particular). This dedication to writing long volumes, by collecting abundant and significant evidence, and elaborated arguments, would debunk, I believed, taken for granted myths, recover the voice of the oppressed, and even inspire the readers to speak out and stand up when facing injustice.

Are those times and intentions gone? Is anyone out there still thinking that books matter? Can be critical social sciences communicated without books? Certainly, shorter articles in newspapers and via online media posts may have similar outcomes. Obviously, they are easier to digest. And the overflow of information we all are subject to demands a sharp and quick selection of the bits we intake. Academia has also become mad about impact factors and top ranked academic journals. Due to this established discipline of publishing and punishing, we are thrown into the jaws of that corporate business that has taken over our employment opportunities. The same publishers are also keen to print some of our stuff as extremely expensive books, only to blackmail university libraries one more time. Most people cannot even get to know the existence of such volumes that may end up as just another piece to pile up in your cv in order to get an employment or be promoted once you have one. All the content of your ideas and facts is kept inside the iron cage of academia. Access is only allowed to current students and staff. Common people can only wait to available cracked copies online (or sci-hub for scientific papers), but the most devastating consequence is that most academics won´t even imagine the benefits of writing for a general public as their primary audience. Not to say if you dared to do it in a non-English language. Exceptions here, as Naomi Klein´s best-selling texts prove, confirm the rule. More often than not, the social and political impact of books is left behind by both leading and struggling to survive within academic environments.

I would like to suggest three ways out from these dilemmas. We might designate the first strategy as the ‘mild subversive’ approach (MS). A second one could be named as the ‘temporal autonomous zone’ (TAZ). I call ‘double bind’ to the third strategy (DB).

MS – To be honest, the most subversive people I met in academia did not even finish a PhD or quit shortly afterwards. Others, a few old guys, showed me that there are cracks in any system (either a university or a totalitarian state) but you have to seize the right opportunities to widen them, work hard along the thresholds and margins you may not feel comfortable at, and do more practical things than just pretending to be a cool radical academic. ‘Mild subversives’ would write ground-breaking books such as Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” and defend their own territory of criticism from within universities and activism from without. The social and political consequences of their books are more significant than their institutional life, to which they fit well accommodated. The more they join academic unions, agitate students and question intellectual elitism, the more they raise the stakes of their subversion. The MS type is also very pragmatic –keep your job, speak up whenever it is appropriate and efficient, use your writings to mobilise your target audience (i.e., any deprived, alienated or powerless group). A short volume of, say, 100 pages, may perfectly reach the goal. And a clear style of writing (not precisely what Foucault himself achieved) without missing scientific rigour can even win the praise of your opponents, which is always very healthy for public deliberation.

TAZ – Although I am very much concerned about Murray Bookchin’s critique of Bey’s formulation of TAZ (not that convinced about his judgements on the implications of Foucaults’ work and positionality, however), the expression has been proved very fortunate to understand activist as well as institutional and imaginary spaces of collective struggle. In my field of urban studies, I have seen many successful attempts to create long lasting scholarly networks of cooperation between mild and less mild subversive academics –the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research and Antipode journal, and the books connected to them, were some expressions of these pioneering networks. INURA and SqEK are newer and fresher examples and, luckily, not the only ones. The main hindrances for them to grow are ephemerality, job precariousness and internal unbalances of power or wealth. In the case of their articulations as academic journals and book series, they also have to confront a strong force of co-optation from the corporate firms (publishing houses) they collaborate with. When their affiliates are too dispersed all over the world and, especially, placed in different disciplinary fields and institutions, their autonomous zones of mutual support may end up in the terrain of wishful thinking without paying sufficient dedication to a regular work of collective criticism and writing together. The main driver of such a TAZ would simply be ‘let’s help each other to write books able to support struggles for social justice’. One of my favourite projects following this motto is a non-university group (although many of its members hold PhD or Masters’ degrees) from Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños. Other great examples I recently came across to are a guide to fight gentrification and a book about the neoliberal myths around housing (both in Swedish language), authored by a network of colleagues from various universities of my new adoptive country.

DB – Our masters, bosses, presidents and abusers tend to trap us in ‘double binds’ with contradictory messages that ruin our confidence and freedom. Universities are not out of that game. The ‘publish or perish’ command is often said at the same time as ‘teach and do admin work as much as you can’ which usually prevents tenure-trackers and adjuncts from any time to publish. Motivation declines rapidly. Arbitrary power exerted on a daily basis by our managers trouble all the waters. What to say if you even wish to write critical books that nobody asked you for (only articles in top journals, remember)? This is our normal life schizophrenia. Fine, let’s start to acknowledge and examine it (they really mean, ‘even if you publish, you can eventually perish’). Then we can figure out how to meta-communicate and jump up the logical level –this is to say, how to escape from the double bind. One option is to republish your journal articles as a book perhaps with a new make-up minus the unnecessary jargon. Why not to try the reverse tactic –break down your book into short publishable papers while bearing the hardships of rewriting half of it and satisfying the vicious comments of the anonymous referees? You can also try to fool the evaluating authorities and agencies by providing alternative impact factors that account for your scholarship production in the form of books (launching presentations, online mentions, etc.). That is to say, send them confusing messages back. Warning: this field of ‘positive double bind’ is on the rise but needs much more improvement, so do not place all your hopes on it. As everybody knows, resistance involves costs. The more confusion you add to the cocktail, the more explosive may be for all the parties. Therefore, calibrate your strengths (and prepare B plans). A playful awareness of double binds, at least, will relieve many from the naiveté of ‘survival by doing simultaneously all you must and all you love’. If we, writers of critical books, are doomed to fail, let’s postpone it as much as possible by driving our opponents nuts and by manipulating, accordingly, the context of academic production.

When recreating categories such as the above, I am in debt with some of the best sociologists I met many years ago in Spain (Jesús Ibáñez, Alfonso Ortí and Tomás R. Villasante). They also stressed the interactions and flows between every ideal type. It is very costly to perform MS, TAZ and DB altogether, but you can dedicate your energies to each strategy in every period of activity you deem meaningful and bearable. You can even try fruitful combos. Books will surely come out despite the stubborn structures of the neoliberal academia. Should not we succeed, we can always rely on the beauty of some short pieces of writing that exceptionally shine in the academic journals as well. Nevertheless, the art of synthesis should also apply to books.

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