Brad Evans interviewed by the magazine The Reading lists discussing his intellectual and literary influences and essential readings.
Q. When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
My response tends to be along the lines of a political-philosopher and writer who works on the problem of violence and education. Though I often compliment this by mentioning my 8-year-old daughters description, who when asked what her daddy does for a living responded “he’s Doctor of Violence who makes up words in the hope they make sense”. I still can’t convince her I didn't invent the term “pedagogy”.
Q. What are you reading at the moment?
Sculpting in Time. It's a remarkable set of reflections by the late Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. I have always been completely in awe of his work, especially his ability to disrupt the aesthetic field of perception. Its like he brings the world of Nietzsche to life. It’s beautifully haunting. As the title for this book suggests, Tarkovsky also understood better than anybody the importance of time. Everything for him is framed by time – including love, life, and our encounters with death, though not in any reductive chronological sense to which we have become accustomed. Time is differential, which in turn, means the experiential nature of life is defined by a more complex understanding of its temporalities. I am also completely taken by his understanding of interpretation. To quote: “A book read by a thousand different people is a thousand different books”. I fully agree with this sentiment. All books need to live and have the ability to break out of the entrapments of its author.
Q. What’s your earliest memory of reading?
I recall my parents bought me a collection of stories by Hans Christian Anderson. It had these wonderfully detailed illustrations accompanying many of his classic stories. Though to be honest I only used to flick through its pages from time to time. My love for reading didn't really develop until I was about fifteen years old. Steven King’s Salem’s Lot is the book that stands out from this period. Growing up in the isolating former mining valleys of South Wales, it was a book that resonated on so many levels. Indeed, having already been scared witless by the movie that was the first horror film I watched – especially the scene of the floating child at the window, it was also the book, which taught me that words on pages are simply a point of entry into the more enriching and sometimes more terrifying life of the mind.
Q. If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
Alice in Wonderland. I maintain it is the best book of political theory ever written. Lewis Carroll is such a captivating thinker, who manages to break down the false and unhelpful binaries that set apart poetic vs. technical modes of thinking. Not only is Wonderland such a timeless book, I mean is there a better character to capture the politics of Trump than the Queen of Hearts - she utters therefore its true - but the way the book deals with questions of power, arbitrary violence and the transformation in subjectivities is truly exceptional. Moreover, Carroll allows us to rethink the very terms of resistance and revolution, for what are Alice’s greatest weapons, after-all, if not the power of her imagination? If we lack resistance to the present, it’s precisely because we don't have an alternative vision of the world.
Q. What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
When I was around sixteen years old I worked for four weeks in a factory that built overhead projectors. On a production line, my responsibility was to attach the projectors metal arm to the base, over and over, countless numbers, each day. The only thing that broke the tedium of this mind numbing task was to either watch the large slowly moving clock situated on the factory wall (talking about the relativity of time) or to engage in conversation with the worker set next to me who had been in his position for over a decade. This guy was an avid fan of Star Trek, and every five to six minutes he would turn to me (being the new recruit) and begin “Did you know….” Followed by yet another fact about the franchise. By the end I didn't even respond. Though that didn't stop him from carrying on enlightening me with the most random facts about something Id never actually watched. But I don't regret the experience. It was one of the catalysts in my decision to go back into education.
Q. Do you read as much as you’d like to?
A: One of the tragedies of modern life has been the veritable speeding up of all aspects of our existence. The problem for me is less about the volume of books or articles we can read; but more about the time to reflect. Having the ability to positively critique the present in a meaningful and considered way demands a slowing down and not speeding up of our reflective engagements with the various knowledge based productions, especially intellectually challenging books, we encounter. So as with all aspects of life, maybe less is more, if less means developing more intimacy with every single sentence.
Q. What books do you feel are important reading for people on your career path?
I have never really seen myself on a “career path”. There has never been a clearly defined road I have tried to map out or signposted before me. I just try to stay principled to the work I feel is important, trying as best I can to speak to multiple audiences through various mediums. Though I have been very fortunate to have the guidance of a number of truly brilliant mentors along the way, who have each instilled in me the idea that no book should ever be written unless it moves, disrupts and challenges your preconceived ideas.
But if I had to single two books out they would be Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. The importance of Freire is to teach us that education is always a form of political intervention. It’s never value neutral or objective. In this regard, education is not simply about introducing students to core “subjects”. Education is always a regime of power, which producing certain subjectivities is integral to the authentication and disqualification of lives. At its best, the power of education then is to encourage and help liberate what it means to think and act in the world. A Thousand Plateaus develops this idea like a conceptual cluster bomb, which disrupting the very idea that a book itself should have a logical structure and flow, allows for less structured and formalised understanding of critique. It is a truly original exercise, which reflecting the complex layering of human realities, disavows any privileged intellectual hierarchies. And in the process, it shows how everything can be potentially political in its effects. The book also importantly represents a continuation in the on-going fight against fascism in all its forms.
Q. Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
A: Dante’s Inferno. It is brilliant and troubling. Dante shows in this poem how the very same text can be used to uphold the most formidable regimes of power yet reveal subtle revolutionary insights. While there is always something new to take from Inferno, I am actually less interested in the figure of Dante than Virgil. Virgil is not only a guide and tutor. He is seemingly the master of all things literary. And more importantly still, he is a poet who Dante recognised to be the witness of history and the maker of new worlds. Dante captures the poetic in ways we are yet to fully comprehend and appreciate. It’s a poem that continually calls you back. Line four of Canto 28 stays with me. Words often fail us. And in this regard I disagree with Jacques Derrida. There is a world outside of language - a world of love and pain, shared hopes and tragedies, imagination and ruination, which remains irreducible to prose. That doesn't mean books are less important than we imagine. On the contrary, I like to think of books, like Inferno, as a key to open different gateways into these all too human experiences.
Q. What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
A: Mathias Enard’s Zone. Its one of the most brilliant books I have read in a very long time. Enard’s literary style alone is exhausting. But the subject matter he deals with – war and violence - should take us to this point. There is more depth in this book than any dry chronology of the history of warfare and its consequences.
Q. What’s your favourite genre of book?
A: I try not to privilege any genre of book. Though often I find there is more realism in literary styles than any so-called objective and scientifically validating study into the political and social nature of human beings. I am not anti-science. But I am anti-positivist. I believe the tendency to parcel the world of intellectual enquiry into neat boxes so we might retreat back into disciplinary purities, especially those under the reductive guise of quantifiable dogmatism, is counter-intuitive to the idea that the political should be tasked with creating better futures. I try to therefore keep my horizons as open as possible in this regard.
Q. What do you think a world without books would be like?
Dead. I don't mean death in terms of the extinction of all things, but death in the terms of the killing one of those elements that make us human as such. If you don't have libraries, you end up having prisons. If you don't provide people with the intellectual tools to empower critically minded subjects, you end up with incarcerated minds. A world without books is a world foreclosed. Every great tyranny begins by declaring a war upon the imagination and the appropriation or imprisonment of those deemed to be its most creative. The question is why? Imagining other world’s runs counter to the fascistic impulse to impose a forced unity upon a people. Tyrants always try to suffocate and replace the richness of the human condition with dogmatic images of thought. Such is the reason why books are often banned and outlawed by those who fear their contents. They are one the most powerful mediums in which the political can be reimagined and new styles of living developed. But we need to be vigilant. As we also know, the burning of books can take many different forms.
Q. Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
There are two, for entirely different reasons. The first is Henry A. Giroux. I have had the distinct privilege to collaborate with Henry on a number of occasions. Henry has such a brilliant and courageous ability to get beneath the surface of social myths and constructions, to expose us to the raw realities of power and its human consequences. What is more, his commitment to the ethical importance of public education is tireless, and everything he writes is done with compassion, sincerity and dignity.
The second is Simon Critchley. The brilliance of Simon is to make complex philosophical ideas resonate. Whether he’s writing about Oscar Wilde, Hamlet or David Bowie, his books seamlessly move from the complexity of philosophical enquiry onto the ways the ideas shape and influence everyday life. This I believe comes from his particular approach to philosophy and the arts, which seems to be about providing readers with a new angle of vision on a set of issues. I have also been enormously influenced by his stylistic promiscuity, learning to write for different audiences with different styles. This has been an important lesson for me. There is no such thing as a universal language.
Q. Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
I hope not. There is something quite magical about the material form of the book. And besides the digital world is far more precarious than we care to imagine. As Paul Virilio has noted, we still don't know what a virtual accident looks like.
Q. What book do you feel humanity needs right now?
One that takes us beyond the contemporary impasse, in which we are simply presented with two visions of the world: the fated catastrophic imaginary of liberalism or the retrotopic and overtly fascistic visions of political realism. If only Nietzsche were alive to write it.
Q. What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
Primo Levi’s If This is A Man. This is so much more than a book. It's a testimony to the worst of the human condition. It profoundly altered how I understood the relationship between history and its claims to civilisation and human progress. And it also placed certain ethical and political demands upon me as a writer, as it should do with everybody who reads its harrowing pages. As Gilles Deleuze noted, it's a book that asks us all to continually question our own shameful compromises with power.
Q. Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Anything by Kakfa. He is another of the great political and philosophical minds who understands the power of literature.
Q. What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am currently working on a number of projects, one of which is taking me into some obscure and fascinating places. Its also allowing me to focus more on the life and work of Frida Kahlo, who to my mind is one of the greatest revolutionary figures of the 20th Century.
Q. If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I would like to write some kind of autobiography someday – not about me (my life is not that interesting), but about the conditions of life growing up in a working class community with all its hopes and desperations. Though the title is “yet to be decided”. Maybe I’ll call it that. It needs to be optimistic.