Maybe your before-bed reading has dried up and that copy of Plato’s Republic that you’ve been using as a coaster is looking tempting, or maybe you’re curious but intimidated. Whatever your motivation, political theory can be accessible, and dare I say it, fun.
If you take a Political Theory 101 course (some may call it political philosophy), you’ll probably read a few key works from the canon, many of them dry and difficult. The texts that follow are more toothsome than most. They won’t offer you a survey of political theory, but they might get you excited to read more. I’ve also chosen books that should be easy to find either for free at your library or cheaply at your local used bookstore.
Antigone is more than you may remember from high-school English: it’s a deeply political work that discusses not only the role of civil disobedience in the state, is also describes how the memory and mourning of political violence might be handeled productively.
The trick to getting it: Have fun. Read it aloud. Be a little melodramatic. There’s also a great production that you can watch on YouTube that has Juliet Stevenson playing Antigone. It’s really good.
What to drink: Much like the Greeks at a good party, wine’s the thing.
Marx & Engels: The Communist Manfesto
Much more than the start of infuriating conversations with your college boyfriend, the Manifesto is a text grounded in frustration over the way things are. Put aside for a moment the tragic mid-twentieth century projects this book spawned and think instead of the deeply critical method that Marx & Engels employ. Lately, I’ve seen authors apologize for being overly critical of the distribution of wealth in this country post-recession, saying that they don’t mean to get all Marxist on their readers, but the thing is, Marx is right in many ways. While there is no purely communist model that we’ll ever achieve, the righteous indignation at how people are treated and the methods used for pointing out the systems that got us here are still relevant and no one should apologize for using them.
The trick to getting it: Fall in with the anger. This is a prescriptive text meant to get one moving. Don’t over-intellectualize it. Give yourself time to nod with agreement or shake your head no.
What to drink: PBR is the opiate of the hipster masses. Marx would prefer you drink a home-brew or something from your local, employee-owned craft brewery.
Rousseau: Discourse on the Origin of Inequality
People might ask why I put Rousseau over Locke or Hobbes, and it’s a fair question. While Locke and Hobbes are a bit more interesting if you’re trying to parse out the origins of American ideology, Rousseau is a pleasure to read. With sentences like, “The first person, who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society,” you can’t help but love the author whom I think of as the drunk uncle of social contract theory.
The trick to getting it: As I advise with most theory: just let go. Stop trying to understand every little thing and just read. Since Rousseau is a social contract theorist, you may notice some comparisons to the type of government that the United States adopted.
What to drink: I always imagine that Rousseau would go easy with a dirty martini ““ something with a salty bite similar to Rousseau’s prose.
Judith Butler: Gender Trouble
Oh, Judy B, with your hard-to-understand-sentences, you have led so many of us down the path into feminism and women’s studies with your discussions of performativity. Those of us who have struggled with your syntax both love you for opening our eyes to the fluidity of gender and hate you for taking so many hairpin-turns in language to get to the point. Gender Trouble is where the Butler novice should start.
The trick to getting it: If you read Persephone and other feminist blogs, you probably already do get it, just not in the language of Judith Butler. If you instinctually understand that you perform your gender daily and see ways to perform it differently, you’re well on your way to understanding Butler.
What to drink: If you want to perform your gender properly and you are a lady, maybe something defined as girly, like a cosmo. If you’re feeling like troubling your gender, maybe go for a good Scotch. I like Auchentoshan.
Derrida: Specters of Marx
Nothing that Derrida writes is easy, but he’s funny and angry in Specters, which makes him a little easier to read. Specters is an accessible(ish) book and his descriptions of the plagues of the new-world order will speak to frustrations you might be feeling.
The Trick to Getting It: Like Butler, you may instinctually already understand a lot of this stuff. The idea that things can be rethought if we invite the in-between (in this case the specter, neither living nor all dead) is something you may already think of as important to changing the world.
What to Drink: Whatever makes you feel a little pretentious (because that’s exactly what you’ll feel when reading this) ““ that nice whisky you got for Christmas or a classic cocktail made with an obscure liqueur.
Obviously five texts don’t cover everything you need to know and one person could think any other text is a better introduction than these. I’ll admit that the 5th, which I chose as Derrida, could have been anyone. Who I really wanted to choose was Thomas L. Dumm, but finding his books will be difficult to do at the library (but if you do happen across one of his books, do yourself a favor and read it).
Are there any political theory books that you think are good for first-timers? Leave them in the comments, along with your cocktail recommendations.