Authors Meet Critics

Dylan Riley, “Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present”

Part of the Social Science Matrix Authors Meet Critics series


On February 1, 2023, Social Science Matrix presented an Authors Meet Critics panel on Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present, a book by Dylan Riley, Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley.

Professor Riley was joined by two discussants: Colleen Lye, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley, affiliated with the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory, and Donna Jones, Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley and Core Faculty for the Designated Emphasis in Critical Theory and the Science, Technology and Society Center. The panel was moderated by Alexei Yurchak, Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, and was co-sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities.

As described by its publisher, Microverses comprises over a hundred short essays inviting us to think about society—and social theory—in new ways. It analyses the intellectual situation, the political crisis of Trump’s last months in office, and love and illness in a period when both were fraught with the public emergency of the coronavirus, drawing on Weber and Durkheim, Parsons and Dubois, Gramsci and Lukács, MacKinnon and Fraser.

“It is really a marvelous little volume that takes on a wide range of questions in a short-essay format,” said Marion Fourcade, Director of Social Science Matrix, in her opening remarks. “It beautifully blends the deadly serious with the very important mundane. There are reflections about the weight of history, the usefulness of concepts, the potency of classical music, and last but not least, how to think sociologically about our tumultuous times.”

Alexei Yurchak noted that the book is a “collection of 110 very interesting, sometimes very intense, analytical, sometimes very light, but insightful comments and analysis and thoughts on the current situation.”

In his remarks, Riley explained that Microverses “was really a response to a triple set of crises: one global, one more national, and one very personal.” The global crisis was the COVID pandemic, and “especially the early months of that experience, which were incredibly disorienting for all of us in in various ways — a feeling of suspension, suspension of time, and this fundamental rupture of normal routine that we all experienced.”

The second crisis, he said, was the final months of the Trump administration, “which was a very, very bizarre period politically,” culminating in the January 6 Insurrection.

And the third crisis was Riley’s wife’s terminal illness, which was diagnosed in late August 2020. “These three things came together for me to create a profound feeling of disruption, and a kind of hiatus,” he said. “I was, in a sense, forced to continue being active to write in a different way. And for me, that was essentially pen and paper and notebooks. A lot of these notes were composed in waiting rooms, in parking lots, or in a cafe, because I was just didn’t have access to normal routine…. I had to learn how to write in a way that was more direct than I’m used to.”

Riley explained that the essays in the book have three main foci: politics and political culture, with a running “friendly” critique of the contemporary left in America; a more personal set of notes, focused on illness and related issues; and a constant meditation on sociology and Marxism.

“The idea that I was after,” he explained, “was to try to link the personal to the theoretical, in some kind of fairly direct and unmediated way, and in a way that was not burdened with an overly technical or specialized language — and that could in a sense turn social theory into a tool for mastering, to some extent, life.”

To hear the responses from Professor Lye and Professor Jones, watch the video above or listen to the podcast.

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