I am a British/Canadian writer and academic—British by birth, Canadian by choice. If pushed to define my field, I would say on the edges between social theory, historical sociology, and cultural history.
Educated in the UK at the Universities of Essex and Durham, I began my academic career writing on social theory (Marx’s Method, 1978; Society, with David Frisby, 1986; The Violence of Abstraction, 1987; Capitalism and Modernity, 1990) and historical sociology (The Great Arch: English State Formation as Cultural Revolution, with Philip Corrigan, 1985). I taught sociology at the University of Glasgow from 1979 before moving to the University of Alberta, Canada in 1986. I was Chair of the University of Alberta’s Sociology Department from 1996-2000 and held a Canada Research Chair in Social Theory and Cultural Studies there from 2000-2005. I co-founded the Journal of Historical Sociology (Wiley-Blackwell) with Philip Corrigan in 1988 and have been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada since 1994.
Since the 1990s the core of my work has been a trilogy of books published by Princeton University Press that take the city of Prague (where I lived from 1991-1993) as an alternative vantage point from which to excavate what Walter Benjamin called the dreamworlds of modernity.
The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History (1998) used modern Czech history from the mid-18th through the mid-20th centuries to explore questions of national identity and historical memory. The award-winning Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century: A Surrealist History (2013) zoomed in on modernism in the Bohemian capital during the earlier twentieth century, with a particular focus on the fraught relations between avant-garde art and revolutionary politics. The final volume, Postcards from Absurdistan: Prague at the End of History, was published in November 2022 in North America and in January 2023 in Europe. It concentrates on the tumultuous Czech half-century from 1938 to 1989.
Full details of my publications are listed on my CV. I also have a page at academia.edu with copies or links to many of my writings, including the full (downloadable) texts of Marx’s Method, The Great Arch, The Violence of Abstraction, extracts from my books on Prague, and the original draft of my 2004 “memoir in search of a subject,” Going Down for Air.
I moved back to the UK in 2006 to take up a Chair in Cultural History at Lancaster University, where I served as head of the History Department from 2009-12. In 2013 I got diverted by the UK’s comically misnamed Research Excellence Framework (REF) into writing Rank Hypocrisies: The Insult of the REF. I retired from Lancaster and returned to Canada in June 2016. Two days after I landed a narrow majority of the Great British voting public decided to turn its xenophobic back on the European Union, confirming that the UK was a place people like me, Theresa May’s “citizens of nowhere,” were better off out of. Je ne regrette rien.
Retirement has given me not only time to write, but freedom to do so in a way that is not driven by the targets of “impact” and income generation set by the philistines that currently run UK universities. As well as Postcards from Absurdistan, my recent publications include a short book, Making Trouble: Surrealism and the Human Sciences, in the Prickly Paradigm Press pamphlets series, a lengthy polemical article on Brexit and Trump, and a popular history-cum-travel guide, Prague: Crossroads of Europe, which was published in Reaktion Books’ Cityscopes series in 2018.
Future publication plans include a trio of books for Brill in Europe and Haymarket Press in North America in the Historical Materialism Books series, comprising (1) a reissue of The Great Arch, together with eight other texts by Philip Corrigan and/or I on aspects of state formation; (2) a reissue of Marx’s Method and The Violence of Abstraction in a single volume; and (3) a selection of my essays over the years in social theory and cultural history, provisionally entitled Undisciplined.
I do have a life besides. Before COVID-19 it included a lot of travel, especially long road trips in rented SUVs; wine and food (growing, cooking and eating it); art and photography; a lifelong love affair with music, ranging from dead operatic sopranos to cacophonous jazz to the further shores of Americana; and family and friends on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as a good deal further south and east.
I live in Calgary, Alberta, with my beloved partner Yoke-Sum and our standard poodles. Our brioche-and-Basque-cheese-eating Luci was named for Lucinda Williams but she should probably have been called Dolly. A very regal girl.
Luci passed away on March 17, 2020 at the age of 13 years, the first blow in a year that kept them coming. We swore we would never get another dog, but then COVID hit and the house just felt so empty. Alice, our rambunctious big-boned girl from Southern Alberta, has helped us through the pandemic. She was named for Alice Coltrane and Alice B. Toklas, but really she’s a down-home burger and fries Canoodle.