We’ve all been there. We’ve all been at a conference or seminar outside of our “home” discipline, and sat in the audience feeling surprise, exasperation, seething frustration, or all of the above. How can it be that our colleagues can be struggling with this question, when [insert your favourite theorist here] has already given us the tools to comprehend it? Or maybe in the course of your reading you’ve come across someone characterising and critiquing your subdiscipline, but they’ve built such a straw figure that it must surely be critique as parody. “Just go and read [formative text]”!!! Surely being a critical scholar is not that hard?
But it is. It can be bloody hard. Getting through those central texts necessarily involves hard, grinding labour. And it should! So, this post is about how the good university—to borrow from Raewyn Connell—should be about collective reading groups that make that journey easier. When we appreciate the overwhelming complexity of the social objects that we attempt to comprehend through political economy, serious attempts to theorise those objects must retain some of that complexity. Reading Henri Lefebvre, or Cedric Robinson, or Doreen Massey, or Milton Santos, or Silvia Federici is hard. Reading Louis Althusser is very hard!
This is something we ought to remember, when we engage with others who have not shared the same intellectual path that we have. Every time we make it through one of these challenging, formative texts, it changes us as scholars and as people. Hence, through the Past & Present Reading Group we have experienced an organic, collective strategy that makes the enterprise a little easier, and much more fun. This has come to the fore most recently in both our collective reading of György Lukács’ History and Class Consciousness and the realisation of a collaboratively authored journal article that has now just been published in Review of International Political Economy that asserts his relevance to critical political economy and radical geographical studies alike. Our earlier blog post ‘Travelling with Gramsci’ provides a reconnaissance of the argument available HERE. So maybe our point is that in the modern academy there lies a praxis that might offer a way to bring scholars closer together to the critical power of political economy and geography? Maybe the answer is collective intellectual labour?
That said, it should be admitted that the practice of academic collaboration is not without its tensions and misapprehensions. As the experience of writing the article has shown, this could be due to the strong methodological assumptions of disciplines that, initially at least, sit uncomfortably against wider philosophical arguments. This is seen in the first part of our article, with a focus on the work of Jean-Paul Sartre and Moishe Postone. The existentialism of Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, for instance, is undoubtedly a Marxist existentialism, one concerned with fundamental social problems as much as with the struggle of consciousness in the pursuit of truth. And when in his reinterpretation of Marxian categories Postone insists that social critique is intimately related to what could be, is he not thinking of a social truth that is, to some extent, indeterminate, that keeps one foot in the domain of capital and the other outside of it? As we inferred throughout the collaborative process, it is this very tension between philosophy and social relations that, more broadly, makes Lukács an ideal candidate to work through and in dialogue with other authors and each other.
Ultimately, then, the possibility of an incompatibility of theoretical approaches between us as individuals proved to be secondary to our common analytic purpose—namely the assertion that Lukács transformed class consciousness into an absolute, which cannot bode well in a social context that is itself dominated by abstractions and totalising modes of thought (i.e. by the commodity form). Such a concerted recognition of the “issue” with Lukács, together with the central problem of capitalist society, permitted us in turn to transit fluently towards themes related to space and nature. Indeed, it is this focus on “issue”, this driving demand that our analysis be relevant to pressing contemporary concerns, that is definitional to political economy. And as our article shows, the methodology of deliberately reading Lukács from the vantage point of converging socioecological crises both bears fruit and allows for meaningful collaboration between a diverse array of scholars. The praxis of collective intellectual labour is at its core political, and that politics must be grounded in relevant issues. The further alienated our analysis becomes from those real, tangible political stakes, the easier it is for the collective enterprise to collapse into petty squabbles. But how to transition from the philosophical to the political concerns and the contemporary relevance of Lukács? This was the challenge of our article. Ultimately, a commitment to totality as a methodological premise, we argue, demands both reflexivity and historical specificity. In acknowledging the risks of a Lukácsian analysis and working through others who have pushed forward relational comparisons and the concept of totality, we were able to recover the utility of his claims and necessity of thinking through crises relationally.
In working dialogically, both with each other and through other texts that spoke to Lukács, we were able to produce an article that was much more than the sum of its parts. By dividing our labour around three themes—critiques of Lukács by Postone and Sartre, the value of totality as methodological premise, and socio-nature and the production of space—we were free to start from different points, whilst engaging with a common goal of untangling the relevance of Lukács for contemporary political economy and radical geography. Although there was a clear division of labour both within and between the sections of our article and each section had its own central logics and function, we always came back to a whole.
The challenge was to work within the limits assigned. We were seven people with seven different projects, positions, and styles, yet were producing one collective text. This required a socialisation of the labour process, a giving up of ownership, and the capacity to let go if your carefully crafted paragraph was in the end superfluous to the whole. Once sections were drafted, the article passed through each contributor to edit (no track changes!) as they wished.
This process of collective intellectual labour—a process of division, reflection, and rethreading—produced a coherent (although not without its contradictions) whole. What emerged was one article, but more than one argument; multiple threads are woven through each section. And it was in the process of plaiting, that the parts of Lukács’ work (that we as individuals may have felt uneasy with) were worked through in dialogue with the group, which allowed each of us to develop our own understanding and appreciation of his work. Taking this on as a single task, like reading theory alone rather than as a collective, would have produced a radically different text and we as authors would not have been challenged to reassess our own preconceptions.
Collective intellectual labour is hard but struggling alone is even harder. Perhaps key to Lukács’ continuing relevance is his argument that the process of collective struggle is itself productive.