What have you left out?

I wanted to be comprehensive, all-inclusive, of course, to write something like a Handbook of Political Action. I wondered if the book might work as an encyclopaedia or maybe something more like McLuhan’s ‘inventory of effects’. But then I was mindful of Borges’s ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’, which Foucault uses in the preface to The Order of Things, which is to say that I felt I could only ever create a very specific universality, my own, which is no universality at all, and one which would be a function only of whatever I think counts or qualifies to be included, that is of a specific definition of what politics is, from a particular perspective, at a particular point in time and space (here and now).

When shall we actually write books like catalogues?

Walter Benjamin, ‘Teaching aid’, One-Way Street, 1928

The interesting question is what makes a comprehensive project like that so difficult, and I think it’s the sheer variety and contingency and inherent uncertainty of action. To the extent that political action is necessarily interaction, taken in relation to specific others in specific circumstances, it is always different, always new. There’s a beautiful irony in the way that the smallest object of social scientific investigation eludes conclusive description and explanation.

So I tried to develop something more organic and rhizomic, something that might be added to, and which lets those additions take it off in different directions. That was the way I put it together, in fact, and I think the only way it could have been written. Any part of the book might accrete more and more cases and quotations until it simply collapses under its own weight and we start again. It’s organic, unfinished, like doing is, like politics is.

In the ‘remote pages’ of ‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia entitled ‘Celestial Empire of benevolent Knowledge’, Borges reports, ‘it is written that the animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies’.

Jorge Luis Borges, The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, 1952

For now, there are all sorts of things I haven’t said enough about, such as strikes, or occupations, or the significance of the salute. There are some interesting and useful ideas I didn’t pursue, which would have entailed thinking about action in terms of ritual, work or practice, for example, each of which carries specific theoretical impulses I didn’t immediately want to follow. Again, I hope what I’ve written supports a reader in taking it in any of those directions and more.

In 1950, one long winter’s day in the camp, I was dragging a stretcher with my workmate and thought, how would I best capture life in the Gulag? And I realised that it’s enough to describe just a single day, in minute detail, and the most humble worker. No need to exaggerate the horrors, no need for it to be an exceptional day, just an ordinary one, the day that repeats itself, for years.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, BBCR4, 2018

There are structural omissions, inevitably, in that the weight of the material comes from the UK and the US, and to a lesser extent from Europe, and that whatever account I’ve taken of race, class and gender, sexuality and disability is inadequate. I can explain that, but not so easily justify it. I’ve written from my world, to the limits of my own doing. It all needs amplifying and correcting, and if it gets that kind of response, then good.

Social structure is important to the extent it determines who does what kind of politics, when and how and on what terms. All I’m doing is trying to drag the discussion back to doing, to say that if these things matter so much they must matter here. So let’s look here at doing, at how politics happens, and read race and class and everything else back into it. I’m trying to begin somewhere else, to refocus our talk of politics on a different object. And that’s very precisely not to say that we shouldn’t do all the other things that social and political scientists do when they talk and write and about politics. It’s only to say we might also do this.


McLuhan, M and Fiore, Q, coordinated by Jerome Agel (1967) The Medium is the Massage. An inventory of effects, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, op cit, pp 44-5

The passage from Borges is cited as it is in Michel Foucault, The Order of Things. An archaeology of the human sciences, New York: Vintage Books 1994, p xv. ‘El idioma analítico de John Wilkins’ appeared in the collection Otras Inquisiciones, published in Buenos Aires by Sur in 1952, and in English as Other Inquisitions 1937-1952, translated by Ruth L C Simms, Austin: U Texas P, in 1964

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: revealing the Gulag, BBCR4, 13 December 2018, 17:58-18:36