Favourite Readings 2019 – Couch Vacation

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As in previous years, EJIL’s Review Editor, Christian J. Tams, has invited EJIL board members and (associate) editors to offer short reflections on their favourite books of the year 2019. No strict rules apply — the posts are meant to introduce books that left an impression, irrespective of their genre. Today we have selections from Johann Justus VaselYou can read all the posts in this series here.


When reflecting towards the end of the year on the piles of essays and books one has waded through, my limited powers of recollection force me to think that many works are ephemeral or at least fungible. So what was actually a “good read”? It’s hard to spell out the criteria, and maybe the term is also misleading. In my understanding a work qualifies to be a “good read” if I deem it to have a larger and lasting impact, if it changes or enriches my perspective. This year I selected three books from the political science arena, but they all elucidate important legal aspects. I hope that you will find them as meaningful as I do.

Luuk van Middelaar, Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage (Agenda Publishing, 2019)

While it reads like a thriller, this book provides one of the most lucid and profound analyses of European politics in recent years. Middelaar shares his insider knowledge as the former political adviser to the first President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, in tracing and characterizing the fundamental changes of the crisis-ridden European Union. He elegantly blends a birds-eye perspective and microscopical perceptions, diary-like memories and fundamental insights from political theory to display the metamorphosis of the Union. European integration, once marked and motivated by de-politicization and de-dramatization, has turned into an increasingly political endeavour due to unprecedented threats that seemed to require visible gestures. Middelaar poignantly shows that this transition from governance to government, from rule-based to event-politics, from backstage to front stage, is also characterized by a decade of improvisation. Accordingly, the book begins with a quote by Miles Davis, praising the virtues of improvisation. Let’s hope that the EU does not pass away at the premature age of 65, like the “king of cool”, and instead succeeds with magical impromptus (think of Schubert) and creative improvisations (again, think of Miles). In any case, this perspicuous, arresting, and insightful book on Europe is a must-read for every practitioner, student and scholar interested in the Union.

Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (Profile, 2019)

I hate recommending bestsellers. Why tout something that is already on every list from the New York Times to Der Spiegel? But in this case, I make an exception. If you haven’t read it, read it. Comparisons to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital are probably a bit overblown not only due to quantity (Zuboff’s 600 pages is somewhat different to Marx’ 2,600) and time will tell if Zuboff is still read in the year 2200 and makes it onto the UNESCO world heritage list. BUT it is an important book. It is both an enthralling analysis and a crucial, long overdue cri de coeur of our times. And a cri de coeur it really is. Zuboff’s rejectionist attitude is no mere façade, but is practised and lived. Just read it and reconsider not only the demise of what Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis more than a century ago famously coined “The right to be let alone”, but also become aware of the unlimited commercial extraction of human experiences, and new, still almost untamed power constellations. So, switch your mobile device off for a long weekend and read it…

Jürgen Habermas, Auch einen Geschichte der Philosophie (Suhrkamp, 2019)

Jürgen Habermas is one of the last philosophical giants alive. And while philosophical popularity and actual readership are often diametrically opposed (being cited and talked about does not mean one is read) this seems to be different with Habermas. One reason might be that his Œuvre oscillates between interventions as a public intellectual and esteemed scholarly works that by their sheer multitude now constitute a Habermasian ivory tower of its own. Coinciding with his 90th birthday Habermas published an awe-inspiring 1,700-page history of philosophy, or rather, a “genealogy of postmetaphysical thinking” – the original title Habermas had in mind. What Habermas himself qualifies as a “daring, dubious endeavor” is in fact a rich and demanding reconstruction of thejourneyfrom belief to knowledge in occidental philosophy. The project is motivated by his concern that philosophy might lose, or better, self-abandon its unique status as a meta-discipline and could deteriorate into a mere “Hilfswissenschaft”. While for other disciplines specialization equals progress (“knowing more about less”), specialization poses a fundamental challenge for this holistic, enlightening discipline. Habermas persuasively and impressively undertakes the herculean task of securing philosophy’s independent and meaningful role through a historical self-reassurance. I confess: I am slowly approaching the end of Volume I (900 pages) (Die okzidentale Konstellation von Glauben und Wissen), but I am sure that Volume II (Vernünftige Freiheit. Spuren des Diskurses über Glauben und Wissen) is as enriching as the first book. The English translation will definitely not be out before summer 2020. I am not sure how you wish to spend your summer break, but I know what would turn your vacation into a demanding intellectual journey from Plato to Peirce – and beyond. So, if the weekend with Zuboff’s feat has actuated your intellectual wanderlust, pack your bag and stay at home for a rewarding holiday.

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