It was twenty years ago today that my first book, Mapping the Present: Heidegger, Foucault and the Project of a Spatial History was published. I received an advance on 4 October 2001. The contract was signed with Athlone, who became Continuum before the book actually appeared, and now is with Bloomsbury Academic. For an academic book and one by a first-time author I was told that it sold quite well. The original print run is long gone. Unfortunately it’s continued to go up in price, and is now rather expensive, even if it’s just print-on-demand. There are pdfs circulating of course…
I am very grateful to Tristan Palmer, the editor working with the Key Writings Lefebvre collection, who asked for my cv. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas had asked me to be involved in the project, and Tristan wanted to see who this new guy was. This would have been late 1998 I think, as I remember him saying “who’s publishing your PhD?” I was in early discussion with another publisher, but he was keen, got reports on a proposal quickly, and so it ended up with them. I didn’t quite have a contract before my viva, but it was pretty close. I realise this is unusual, even at the time, and so I count myself very fortunate.
When I did submit it, the two reports on the manuscript were really positive – basically both said publish as is. I don’t think I had to make any changes. This has never happened since! Of course it had gone through careful reading by my PhD supervisor, Mark Neocleous, and two examiners, Michael Dillon and Kevin Hetherington. Although the PhD was passed with only five typos, I did take the viva seriously and made some changes as a result. Among these, the Nietzsche chapter was cut out with some parts redistributed, the Introduction reworked, some other editing, but it wasn’t that different. I did that editing work in a very dark ‘garden flat’ in Leamington Spa, in my first year at University of Warwick (the first time I was there, on a series of temporary contracts). Derek Gregory and Barry Smart wrote the lovely endorsements – and I think they must have been the readers too.
It’s obviously an important book for me given how much I’ve done since on Foucault, but my Lefebvre work began around this time too – there was a Lefebvre chapter in the PhD which didn’t make the final version, but was the germ of what became my second book, Understanding Henri Lefebvre, along with the editing work I got involved with, which also continues. And my third book, Speaking Against Number, picked up and developed some of the Heidegger themes, and part of it was a proper answer to a question Mick asked in the viva. The ‘spatial’ angle put me in conversation with Geography, and I remember in particular Jeremy Crampton talking about it on crit-geog-forum (back when that was worth reading). I met and worked with Jeremy only later. The reviews in Geography journals, and some pieces I wrote for them helped secure the post at Durham, so it’s a book that opened up a lot of what I did subsequently.
The Foucault reading in the book was based on essentially what Foucault himself published, with the enormous benefit of Dits et écrits collecting almost all of the shorter pieces. (The challenge of locating those pieces before this would have been huge, especially as this was well before online resources became as widely available.) The first Collège de France lecture course came out in 1997, late in the work for the PhD. There is obviously a lot more available now – far more than Foucault published himself. Taking account of all of this, beginning with the courses, led to the work which became Foucault’s Last Decade and its prequels many years later.
I never did understand the cover. I quite like the colour, and the black inner cover of the original (now lost with the print-on-demand version). But the brain scans were always an odd choice. I used to call it the Grateful Dead album cover choice. And its subtitle really should have been … and the Politics of a Spatial History. Even today, my experience is that authors and editors tend to lose struggles with publishers on two things, covers and titles. (Polity and University of Chicago Press are the exceptions!) And my titles have got shorter too.
A lot of the book was written in West London, where I lived in various shared houses during the PhD, and in the two places I mention in the acknowledgements, just outside of Bath and Chamonix in the Alps. I did a lot of work in libraries too, especially at the British Library, then in the old reading room of the British Museum, and at the University of Essex, on trips home to see family. The book is dedicated to my Dad, who died about a year before I submitted the PhD. And in between submitting the thesis and revising it as a book, I met Susan. So it’s a book that has a personal history as well as an intellectual one for me.
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I was a lecturer at Brunel at the time, but left in 1999 for the LSE. I was at the other, less interesting end of the campus in a science building teaching African geographies, and human geography. Geography was later axed, a spectacularly stupid decision by a former VC.
You clearly found a niche back then in re-interpreting francophone work work in English, which is a good thing. But I think the world is finally moving away from continental European social theorists dominating discussion and debate, as decolonization debates are really beginning to have some purchase in western universities for the first time. UK and other universities now have committees looking at that sort of issue, reading lists and bibliographies are being scrutinized, etc. I had a look at my own teaching recently, [and modest efforts to publish in French for a different audience], and I realised revisionists on African geographies and histories certainly had a point. Any comments?
I hadn’t realised we’d overlapped at Brunel. I left in summer 1999 for the first temporary contract at Warwick. I wasn’t in Geography, but a Department of Government, and I suppose that situation means I see this rather differently. In political theory, European work is still rather marginal in the UK. Now, back in a Politics department, I’m the only political theorist who predominantly works in that tradition. (Other colleagues do work in related areas, but they tend to be in other parts of the discipline. Political Theory is dominated by normative/Anglo-American approaches.) It was with the move to Geography in 2002 that I found a more welcoming place for the work I was doing on Foucault. Lefebvre etc.
In terms of the shift, some things have certainly changed, although my ongoing work on Foucault still seems to receive quite a bit of attention. With teaching, pre-pandemic I taught a political theory course on the European/continental tradition, but this taught Fanon as well as Foucault, Mbembe as well as Agamben. Unfortunately that hasn’t run for the past couple of years. I saw it as a way of broadening the political theory our students were exposed to, beyond the Anglo-American figures.