Geographies of generosity: Remembering Clive Barnett

This blog, and the project behind it, is (was) a collaboration between Clive Barnett and myself. Clive died on 24 December 2021. I’ll work out what this means for the project in the coming weeks and months. For now, here are some words on Clive:

This is not a formal obituary. There will be other times, places, and authors for those. It will probably get trapped in the obituary genre though, which is disappointing because Clive was always trying to escape the constraints of particular genres, which he thought limited our ability to think about new things in new ways. (I realise I’m going to make some claims about what Clive thought in the coming paragraphs. In writing this piece, I don’t mean to claim him from others. There was enough of Clive to go round. And anyone who wants to know what Clive really thought can read all the wonderful writing he left us).

If this is not a formal obituary, then it also won’t be as insightful as some of the informal, genre-defying ‘obituaries’ Clive himself wrote. He wrote generously about many former colleagues, helping people to remember them and see their work in often new and inspiring ways. Some of these pieces were published over the years on his Pop Theory blog. I’m not sure how to put this, but I was ‘looking forward’ (the wrong words) to reading more of these posts about certain human geographers in future. Now, some of those people will presumably write about Clive instead.

What follows will also be written in a strange voice (to me). I don’t really know my audience anymore. For much of my academic life, one prominent member of my imagined audience was Clive. I wrote for him, hoping he would like what I wrote. Sometimes we wrote together, co-authoring a book, journal articles, blog posts etc. or he acted as a second reader for papers I was writing alone or with others. But even when he wasn’t an actual reader, I always imagined he was. He was the standard I held myself to, though he probably wouldn’t have liked that idea. Too constraining again. Standards were for interrogating.

I met Clive at Bristol in the early 2000s. As a PhD student, I joined his ‘big hard books’ reading group, in which he helped students – and some colleagues – read books like The Limits to Capital and A Theory of Justice from cover to cover, including footnotes, one chapter per week. He was very generous with his time and advice. I had my own supportive, inspiring PhD supervisor in Nigel Thrift, but Clive also read things for me, including my draft thesis, which he covered in thousands of markings – providing possibly the closest reading by anyone of anything I’ve ever written.

After my PhD, I became Clive’s research assistant on a project with Paul Cloke and Alice Malpass. This project, led by Clive, taught me a huge amount. Of course, I learned something of theory, which is what Clive is perhaps best known for, and which he was comfortable identifying with (as Professor of Geography and Social Theory at University of Exeter). But I also learned much about empirical research, which Clive took incredibly seriously. In our conversations over the years, he would talk about empirical studies – say, the political geography of Ron Johnston or Charles Pattie – at least as often as the philosophers and theorists with whom he is often associated (Marx, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas etc.). To see how seriously Clive took empirical research, I recommend Chapter 5 of Globalizing Responsibility. The first draft was, I recall, well over 20,000 words. It was mostly Clive and remains one of the deepest engagements I’ve read with questions of what focus groups are for and how to interpret focus group data. (Clive’s line was that focus groups allow researchers to stage aspects of democratic governance. Group members position themselves and others in relation to public issues. This happens interactively and dynamically over the course of the session. Using focus groups, researchers get to observe this process of positioning and repositioning.)

Something else Clive taught me during our study of ethical consumption was the importance of description. It is never ‘mere’ description. It is the foundation for analysis. Indeed, one of Clive’s irritations with certain strains of critical geography was that too often, he thought, critics jump too quickly from description to analysis to denunciation, without pausing for long enough to describe and understand, to describe thickly, what they think they are denouncing.

For example, when we began the ethical consumption project, critical commentators generally assumed that campaigns – promoting consumption of products that were fair trade, no sweat, organic etc. – aimed to subjectify people (as ethical consumers). They proceeded to dismiss these campaigns, either for failing to achieve their aims (because subjectification meets resistance) or for aiming to achieve politically suspect aims (the encouragement of consumer identities and practices). Clive wanted to look more carefully at such campaigns, with a clear lens and an open mind – relatively speaking, of course. When he did so, what he described were campaigns aiming to generate acts of ethical consumption (e.g. sales of fair trade products) that would then be used as evidence of support for a policy position (e.g. fair trade) in multiple arenas – from the church stall to the supermarket to the local council to the government department to the international trade conference.

Reading back what I’ve written so far, one emergent theme is generosity: Clive’s generosity to me personally (giving me his time, feedback, advice, friendship); and his generosity to the people he studied – campaigners, citizens, politicians, scientists, ordinary people, who he approached generally as good faith actors operating competently in difficult circumstances. Another example of Clive’s generosity is the way he interacted with academic colleagues – in team meetings, seminars, conference sessions, written exchanges. His usual way was to listen to people and pick out the one thing he liked best (even if he disliked lots of what they said). Then he would riff on that one thing, making more of it, and making the person feel good for having triggered such positive, productive engagement. (Of course, Clive could also be a harsh critic, as anyone who’s read his book reviews or blog posts about UK HE will attest, but I think he pretty much exclusively reserved such harshness for people ‘at the top’. If he was punchy on occasion, then he punched up and not down.)

After Bristol, Clive and I kept in touch. He moved to the Open University – which fitted his commitments to the competence of ordinary people and their place in democracy (on which more below) – then to Exeter. We did favours for each other, reading things each other had written, speaking at things organised by each other. He wrote references for me and provided advice – always the senior partner. Indeed, writing a difficult piece like this, Clive is the first person I would have called for advice…

For the last 18 months or so, we’ve been working together more formally again as co-investigators on a project about popular responses to the COVID-19 pandemic (this blog is the website for that project). The excitement for me was working once more with Clive and his original, always provocative ideas on risk, responsibility, ethics, governmentality, practices, ordinary people. The excitement for Clive was working again on something empirical: the diaries and letters collected during the pandemic by the Mass Observation Archive. He worried that critics were publishing too many quick analyses of the pandemic. They were fitting the pandemic into their existing frameworks. They were doing what Lauren Berlant called ‘genre flailing’: not opening up the object of study, but closing it down, controlling it, stabilising it, putting it to rest by throwing the language and interpretations of normal science at it. They were jumping from thin description to analysis (and often denunciation) without first patiently trying to describe and understand. Clive wanted to be moved by the pandemic. This was the potential he saw in the Mass Observation materials we’ve been reading. And while I was pushing us quickly to get something relevant out there, to intervene in public debates about how the pandemic was being governed and narrated, he was always pulling us back, determined to do justice to this new phenomenon and its effects, not to reduce it, not to dismiss elements of it, not to do epistemic violence to those affected by it.

Clive could be frustrating to work with. He was slow – intentionally so. He was controlling – often rewriting every other word of drafts written by co-authors. He was over-committed on lots of different projects (including his own projects like Pop Theory, which he could get lost in for days when other deadlines were due, but which were substantial, like everything he did). The frustrations, of course, were worth it. The papers and books that emerged were worth reading. I worry now about my current project. Some of what will come out of it will be my reductive hot takes, naked and exposed, lacking Clive’s care, patience, rigour, scholarship. He never would have let the hastily written piece you’re currently reading out the door. How I wish I could still check in with him before hitting ‘send’!

The final word, for now, should probably be ‘democracy’. Clive worked on this topic throughout his career. His views on democracy – his belief in people, giving them voice, enabling participation, listening, deliberating – run through so much of the above. He read widely (across the disciplines and continents). He listened carefully – to colleagues, but also ordinary people, whether in focus groups, the Mass Observation Archive, or popular culture, including the pop music he loved and insisted should be taken as seriously as the most radical punk act or obscure indie band. He refused to accept that ordinary people were dupes or victims – less competent or skilled than himself, other academics, journalists, politicians. This was part of his problem with critiques of neoliberalism. For him, at least some of these critiques assumed a top-down project of deregulation for the benefit of the capitalist class, and so wrote out the agency of ordinary people who benefited from the welfare state during the twentieth century, became more competent and critical over time, and came to demand a more active role in governance – a process Clive and others termed ‘democratisation’. More recently, Clive’s determination to recognise the good faith and competence of ordinary people was partly behind his irritation with critiques of the post-political. Some of them assumed, in Clive’s view, another top-down project of depoliticisation. How could such a project ever succeed, even if there was such a project? Would it not mean that ordinary people had stopped caring about things; had stopped suffering injustices and acting on the basis of those injustices – voicing their grievances, mobilising, making demands – in the same way you or I would?

In his reading, listening, and writing, Clive practised a democratic geography with great integrity. He is gone way too soon. Indeed, I can’t believe he is gone. After writing this piece, I had to go through and edit all the tenses. It is hard to write in the past tense about someone who was present until a couple of days ago. Clive leaves us (left us) this example of democratic academic practice and also a large body of writing – on democracy, South African democracy, human geography, social theory, and so much more – that deserves to be read long into the future.

So there is the conventional ending to the academic obituary. Let me also say that I loved him and know I’m one of many, many heart-broken people today.

3 thoughts on “Geographies of generosity: Remembering Clive Barnett

  1. On behalf of Clive’s 2nd year tutor group we want to say that Clive was an exceptionally intelligent and interesting lecturer as well as a kind and helpful mentor to us. We are all in shock and not sure what we’re going to do without him. We want to send our condolences to Clive’s family at this time and to everyone else who had the privilege of knowing him.
    From ‘Clive’s Gang’ (the name of our tutor group chat).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nick. Thank you. This must have been incredibly difficult to think about writing let alone set it all out and post it for all those who knew Clive and whose hearts were broken as dramatically as mine was today upon hearing this truly awful news.

    Clive was a giant: intellectually and in friendship. Generous (yes, your choice or.word.is.spot.on) with his time and his ideas, I learned so much from him, and have such fond memories of time spent in his company over the 20+ years I had the pleasure to call him my friend.

    Always kind, always thought-provoking and always uniquely Clive. The world has lost a very special person.

    Rest in peace mate.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s