I actually named this blog after the book I’ve been writing for the last five years or so, Now and Rome, and now the book itself is about to come out (November! Continuum! A bargain* at £60!), and I feel like I should talk about it, despite a surprising level of internal resistance (well, it’s not really surprising, actually, I’ve never been able to talk about this research, even when it was a mere bagatelle of a PhD thesis).
So here is a post about my book.
The thing I’m primarily trying to talk about in the book is the way that political space, the here-and-now in which we live and act, is made up of a dense virtual or informational layer, as well as material space and time. The two have to coexist: you can’t have information without some sort of material which carries that information (I know we like to pretend the Internet is immaterial, but what enables rich white bodies in rich countries to access the shimmering transcendent virtual realm with our pretty white iPhones is the physical labour of poor brown bodies in poor countries, mining coltan and/or disposing of last year’s toxic consumer electronics), but equally, if you’re talking about politics, whenever you try and reach a reality beyond a rhetoric, the real time and place of political action, you always find you’re talking about something highly rhetoricized: why, after all, would you fight over land if the land didn’t mean something to you? David Wills puts this beautifully in his book Dorsality, in a passage I quote in the Introduction to Now and Rome:
While I was writing what precedes, there was blood and soil; it remained ‘there’, as if literally. It flowed, it was poured into the soil, the soil itself was fought over. That takes place all the time; it is a… commonplace. But I would venture that none of it took place without being inscribed in a discursive gesture, that even for the flowing, pouring, and especially the fighting to take place, the blood and soil had to be rhetoricized… Cut-and-dried stabbing and shooting, sniping or bombarding… derive their force from a type of rhetorical potential, from being able to speak outside the pure literality of the act itself
In the book, I’m trying to think through some of the problems that this poses for political action, or perhaps to reconceptualize political action in such a way as to give enough force and weight to the discursive, the informational, the conceptual, dimension of action, while remaining attentive to the material dimension. If you think about the feminist project, for example – and in particular the trans-friendly feminist project – the problem is both to redistribute material resources and end physical violence against women, and also to change what ‘woman’ or ‘female’ means or is able to mean. You have to change meanings and ideologies, because we live our lives by taking actions which are meaningful to us within a particular political/ideological context, in relation to particular politically or ideologically charged terms (like ‘woman’, ‘female’). But you can’t just change meanings and ideologies as if they were not entangled with material and economic power structures.
Derrida says, in ‘Signature – Event – Context’, that the task is to ‘overturn conceptual orders and the nonconceptual orders with which they are articulated’. And in this book, I suppose I’m trying to think about politics as the articulation of conceptual and nonconceptual orders: I’m trying to think about the way that our political and historical context determines the meaning, and the effectiveness, of our actions. I argue, in fact, that political power works by – or maybe consists in? – producing a context within which words, bodies, and actions, mean and therefore can act, can speak, can have effects and be remembered beyond the moment in which they exist. This I take partly from Hannah Arendt’s book, The Human Condition, in which she talks about a ‘web’ of existing actions and speech into which all our actions and words fall, and whose fine strands allow those actions and words to be remembered and to have effects: we are always acting into a context which we ourselves did not set up, but which we inherit and which we can never fully escape. So the question becomes how to change that web, those interconnections, to make new contexts and new meanings possible.
So why is it called now and Rome? Well, one of the things that I’m arguing in the book is that political power, in producing contexts, is implicitly producing a history – a linear history, which justifies the way that power works now and which projects itself into the future, so that the boundary of a political space becomes as much temporal as spatial. I call this ‘sovereign history’ in the book, and I get it from the way that two amazing Latin writers write about political power – Vergil, in his Georgics and Aeneid, and Lucan, in his epic On the Civil War. (They’re really amazing, by the way. I should post about them at some point. Remind me.) But I also get, from the work of Walter Benjamin and Carolyn Dinshaw, the idea that there is an important, subversive power in making connections across history in ways which escape the linear trajectory of sovereign history. So that making new kinds of connection between now and Rome is one of the ways we can make new contexts for our words and our actions, and they can escape falling into the uses that sovereignty would make of them.
I wanted to say more about some examples from contemporary situations, which I don’t really get into in the book, but I have run out of time now. Maybe in a future post. I’m just going to leave you with the two blurbs from the back of the book, which make me unbelievably proud and happy every time I look at them, because they’re both by scholars whose work I respect and admire immensely: Miriam Leonard and Andrew Benjamin.
‘Ika Willis’ brilliant analysis of the politics of territoriality in Rome and the contemporary world represents the best work in theoretically informed approaches to classics and classically informed approaches to theory. It is a masterful demonstration of how, in Derrida’s words, the “very ancient” recurs in the “very modern”, and an eloquent testimony to the untimely modernity of antiquity.’
This is an extremely important book. Not only is its scholarship impeccable, it forms part of a systematic rethinking of the Classical heritage. Rather than looking to the past for either edification or consolation Ika Willis reworks the tradition by looking at the ‘Romaness of now’. In so doing she makes ‘Rome’ part of the present. Drawing on leading figures within the European philosophical tradition she has written a work on Lucan and Vergil that allows for De Bello Ciuili, the Georgics and the Aeneid, to be read as contributing to a rethinking of the exigencies of the political today.
*It is not really a bargain.