How did you find the material?

Just by gathering. I began looking at the academic literature, searching for ethnographic studies of politics, just to see if the subject I imagined really existed. I had the sense it was there, but unformed, that it was still to take shape and definition. Because so few political scientists do ethnography, it meant looking beyond politics to sociology, anthropology, science studies and social theory more generally, as well as policy studies and international relations. What I found led me to other sources, and often to original material I used similarly or sometimes quite differently.

The rest is just being in the world. I’ve picked up things from documentaries and some kinds of news reporting on film, tv and radio. There’s no way I could ever get direct access to the range and variety of political ‘doings and sayings’ I was looking for, so I’ve had to rely on mediated accounts of action, in reports and representations.

Benjamin’s model for his work was the ragpicker, which he took from Baudelaire (in another famous image, Arendt compares Benjamin himself to a pearl diver). I thought more about what I was doing when I read Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren’s wonderful study of ‘doing nothing’. They were interested in what’s happening when nothing seems to be happening, and wrote a sociology of waiting, routines and daydreaming. What they refer to as their ‘seemingly anarchistic analytical work’ had its own implicit logic: one of the keys to the mysteries of doing was not to think about what or why somebody did something, but to concentrate on how. They learned to become ‘constant collectors’, snatching material from a wide range of readings, from newspapers, tv and radio, and from their own everyday encounters. They also looked for what they called ‘good quotations’ from disparate sources in literature and philosophy as well as social science, making for a kind of ‘secondhand research’ which forced them to think about ‘doing nothing’ in new and creative ways.

The ragpicker’s skill and experience lie in knowing what’s worth picking up. There’s a quality control built into published academic work, though the sort of immediacy I wanted is often blurred by the theorising and interpretation put on it by an author. I had developed a frame for sorting and classifying instances of political action, which is essentially the set and sequence of topics of the chapters presented here. Once that begins to coalesce, by going back and forth from the literature to what I thought I had to write, it becomes a way of looking at the world, such that I began to read politics in terms of the categories I had to hand. And so I began to pick up more from the everyday, from what I was reading and seeing in the papers and on tv. What I wanted, the things that caught my eye, were those reported by eye-witnesses – everyday ethnographers – or by those who themselves had done and said the various kinds of doing and sayings I was interested in. So they had a certain kind of authenticity and face validity to them. They were immediately specific to a given instance of political action, but also seemed to contain a kind of truth that might be valid for other similar instances, too. They seemed likely to be noticed, at least in the context in which I wanted to use them, for being insightful, memorable and truthful.

I’ve recently done a lot of experiments with scrapbooks. I’ll read in the newspaper something that reminds me of, or has relation to, something I’ve written. I’ll cut out the picture or the article and paste it in a scrapbook beside the words from my book…

William Burroughs, An Interview, The Paris Review, 1965

I used a note-taking app as a scrapbook, whether for something I’d thought of, or an excerpt from somebody else’s work. The thing about a scrapbook is that it continually begs the question of where to stick whatever it is you’ve found: where you put it on the page, which page you put it on, whether you begin a new page. And then the software lets you move stuff around without too much mess.

Every note or entry stands in some relation to other notes, and these relationships form the infrastructure of the work. A set of closely related things forms a section, closely related sections a chapter and so on. They constitute the categories expressed in headers and sub-heads.

I first put material together in sequence in a simple word file, which became difficult to read and to follow. I realised I had to encode its different elements in different fonts, and spread them out until they made sense. I’d like to think that much of what I’ve written myself can be abstracted from the book, that some of the best pages are those that only work when all its different elements are laid out in this way.


The pearl diver appears in Arendt’s Men in Dark Times prtraut of Benjamin, op cit

Ehn, B and Löfgren, O (2010) The Secret World of Doing Nothing, Berkeley: U California P; ‘Appendix: doing an ethnography of ‘non-events”, pp 217-227

William Burroughs. An Interview, Paris Review 35, Fall 1965, p 21