Non-Representational Theory/World City

By Marres, Noortje | New Formations, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Non-Representational Theory/World City


Marres, Noortje, New Formations


Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory, Roudedge, London and New York, 2008; pp325; £23.99 paperback.

Doreen Massey, World City, Polity Press, London, 2007; pp272, £14.99 paperback.

Space is the principal site of politics today. Recent books by two wellestablished post-structuralist British geographers, Nigel Thrift and Doreen Massey, elaborate this overly general and rather abstract claim, and mostly successfully. The two books under review are really about different topics: one is about London as a global city, and the other presents a new experimental mode of theorizing space in the social sciences. But they develop similar theoretical ideas about 'the politics of the spatial', drawing on previous work, and both authors seek to put these ideas to use to address predicaments raised by current states of affairs: globalization, in Massey's case, and hi-tech capitalism in Thrift's. In order to get an adequate grip on these phenomena, they propose that we must recognize that power is today increasingly exerted in and through spatial arrangements, in and through the socio-material formations that sustain social life. What is especially distinctive about dieir perspectives on spatial politics, in the current context, is the way in which they stretch out the concept of politics to refer to configurations that most other people call by different names; like the 'social', 'technical', or the 'economic'. Thus, the catchphrase 'the politics of space' has recendy been embraced in other fields, such as international relations, where the multiplication of the sites of politics is presented as a central challenge to democracy today. But this kind of perspective tends to limit itself to institutional and organisational, that is, radier straightforwardly 'political', locations of politics. Thrift and Massey refuse this limitation, and continue to commit to the post-60s, poststructuralist, 'radical' message that everyday life constitutes a site of politics: they regard it as a central location for the exertion of power, and accordingly, where power may be most effectively challenged. I am convinced that this enables Thrift and Massey to formulate relevant diagnoses and articulate normative challenges that otherwise might well have remained out of view. At the same time, however, their books can also be seen to highlight certain limitations of such a 'broad' understanding of politics, in particular the risk of turning politics into something Overly theoretical'.

Thrift's Non-Representational Theory is a collection of articles that, with the exception of the first and the last chapters, have all been previously published in journals. This might make one suspect that the book lacks internal coherence, and this concern is not altogether dispelled by the introduction, which provides a rather long list of topics that the book is supposed to be about. It is said to be about 'the politics of everyday life', to provide 'a topography of human experience', and 'a geography of what happens', as well as discussing the shift in the social sciences 'from a representational to an experimentalist approach'. Part of the pleasure of reading Thrift's book, however, turns out to be the discovery of how these different notions entail one another, and can be understood as variations on a theme. Indeed, the book turns out to have a very clear 'order', as the chapters have the structure of a series of rephrasings of very similar claims, having to do with the ways in which human experience is structured by the technological spaces people inhabit. In each chapter Thrift elaborates this idea a bit further, providing several vocabularies for it and demonstrating its relevance for different fields of study. The book starts off with an overview of strategies of 'consumer engagement' recently developed in hi-tech industries: from clever product designs that captivate the senses, like a car door that clicks shut in a seductive way, to the creation of interactive platforms to enable the involvement of users in product design. …

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