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The Top 5 Academic / Non-fiction books I read in 2017

December 21, 2017
  1. Shannon Mattern – Code and Clay; Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media
  2. Achille Mbembé –  Critique of Black Reason
  3. Stuart Elden – Foucault: The Birth of Power
  4. Adam Greenfield – Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life
  5. McKenzie Wark – General Intellects: Twenty-Five Thinkers for the Twenty-First Century

I’ve only just started Shannon Mattern’s Code and Clay; Data and Dirt, but it’s already my #1 non-fiction read of the year. It’s just my kind of thing: enormous ambition, a sweeping historical scope and an infectious brillance that makes you see new things in and about cities.

Achille Mbembé’s Critique of Black Reason has finally been translated into English. It’s an extraordinary book that place the project of creating ‘blackness’ as a nonhuman category through centuries of colonial dominance, capitalist exploitation and oppression. It builds on Mbembé’s earlier development of the concept of ‘necropolitics’, transforming this from a critique of Foucauldian biopolitics into something far more central to the expansion of European power, and its current decline.

Speaking of Foucault, in a year when there has been even more intense efforts to disparage and discredit the greatest thinker of the second half of the twentieth century and even to portray him as a neoliberal fellow-traveller, it was refreshing to read the latest installment of Stuart Elden’s painstakingly researched and evidenced account of Foucault’s middle years, The Birth of Power. Elden is working backwards, the first volume having been on Foucault’s Last Decade, and he makes a convincing case for a consistent project throughout Foucault’s life, but also, in this volume, for a much more Marxist Foucault than his (frankly, much less well-read) critics often realise.

Adam Greenfield continues to produce excellent polemical but well-argued work on urban technologies. In Radical Technologies, he dispatches everything from the Internet of Things to Blockchain. Although sometimes the relentless negativity can get wearing, it’s a welcome corrective to the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley.

Finally, I used McKenzie Wark’s edited collection of his essays for Public Seminar, General Intellects, for my graduate theory class this year, and therefore read it and discussed its themes in far greater detail than I would normally do. It made for a very provocative course, and the students and I were at times infuriated with and delighted by the threads that Wark weaves through this work. At its worst, it seems like really there is only one ‘general intellect’ for Wark, and that’s Wark. But, at its best, the book asks all the right questions of those approaching social theory in this new century. It really needed a bit more a global scope – Wark considers Chinese and African thinkers elsewhere on the website but not in the book itself, which isn’t great especially when the book does find space for crap like vacuous hippy ‘philosopher’, Timothy Morton.

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