Martyn Wemyss

Dr Martyn Wemyss is interested in the relationship between law and time, the aesthetics of justice and the material lives of norms, as well as indigeneity and the political imaginary.


Linford Superville:  ​Have you changed your bookshelf for this interview, if so why?

Martyn Wemyss:  ​I have dusted my bookshelf for this interview and perhaps I’ve scrambled it a little bit. I’ve kind of fallen into a shelf for stuff that I was using immediately, and stuff for another time; I’ve mixed it around. As you can see, it’s not really a bookshelf, just the beginnings of one. I often think that if you haven’t got quite enough to really warrant a kind of thematic or alphabetical organisation – it’s better to be surprised. It’s better to have Marx jostling up against Nietzsche and it’s good to have books which on the face of it have nothing to do with anthropology, brushing up against anthropology books. Sometimes these juxtapositions can spark a little idea, for an essay, project or a lecture, or something that might go forward. So I think that yes, I have messed it around a little bit, but that wasn’t just for your benefit, it was also for mine.


Linford:​   I think that covers the next question – how do you organise your books?

Martyn:  ​How could I organise them? A Latin America section suggested itself, obviously because I teach the anthropology of Latin America and obviously I write a lot about that. Steve Nugent very kindly left me a handful of top titles when he moved out of his office, so I got quite a good Latin America section. I also have a lot that isn’t anthropological; I have philosophy books, so I could have those and a regional section, but like I said – where’s the fun in that? You’ve got to leave room for the unconscious to intervene. I’m a firm believer that most of our best work is done in the unconscious.

Kaytrina Falcini:  ​I’ve noticed the Leonard Cohen Book –

Martyn: ​Yes, I suppose that is my separate section, as all the other shelves have academic books. That shelf is for books I read on the train. Hence the music biographies, short stories and novels that are intruding into a very serious bookshelf.

Linford:  ​Where did your books come from? How do they leave?

Martyn: ​Hmm…there are a few that I’ve had for a long time. Some are borrowed; there’s a great circulation of books in this department, a kind of Kula Ring. You have coffee or tea with a colleague and talk about what you’re working on, and before you know it, two or three books are pressed into your hand. Some of mine are also out on loan, no one ever asks for them back, they just circulate, it’s a really nice thing. Other than that, I do like book fairs – I don’t like how Amazon are squeezing out small booksellers.

There’s pleasure of walking around a book fair and finding titles that surprise. I have no digital books; I have a few pdfs saved on the computer and I find I read them less than a physical book. I never write in books or turn the page down. I don’t leave any marks in my books.

Linford: Your first anthropology book?

Martyn:  ​I can show you. It was given to me by my uncle when he heard I was going to study anthropology. Jomo Kenyatta, Facing Mount Kenya. It was written by a future president of Kenya, with an introduction written by Bronislaw Malinowski.  It’s a profound and beautifully written volume.

Linford:​ Would you say he was very under-rated as an anthropologist?

Martyn: ​Definitely. He had such an interesting life. This is an anthropological book about Africa, written by an African, in a time when that rarely happened. As you know, not just in this university, but in others, too – there is a huge drive to decolonise the curriculum.

Linford:  ​Which book inspired you to be an anthropologist?

Martyn: ​Ah, if I can’t go with Kenyatta – then I’m going to choose The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels, and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by David Graeber.

When I first read the Engels book, I was still studying Law. That made me realise that you cannot get anywhere close to understanding what law is, or what law does without seeing how it’s done. You don’t go into legal situations to see what​ has happened, instead you reconstruct how things happened. I realised that I couldn’t spend my career defining abstract arguments. When I read Graeber, he just blew my mind. He showed me how anthropology was a way to not just understand the world, but also how you can change it.

I believe the reason I ended up working in Bolivia, was because I read To Make the

Earth Bear Fruit, by Olivia Harris, a selection of essays on Highland Bolivia. Also

Martha Mundy’s Domestic Government: Kinship, Community and Polity in North Yemen, which I found a very profound book. These were the two books that I immediately descended upon  when I first started in anthropology, even though Engels hastened my dissatisfaction with legal reasoning, Graeber opened my mind and excited me with anthropological reasoning.

Linford:  ​Which is your least favourite book and why?

Martyn: ​Oh that’s easy, One Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. Not because

I hate it. I like it too much, I just find it frustrating; it’s written in such a dense and poetic style, I can read about 15 or so pages and then have to re-read them. It’s an incredibly fecund book. A book of particular genius. It’s my least favourite out of frustration.

Linford: ​ Did you have any books with you in the field?

Martyn: ​Yes I did. I didn’t have any anthropology books. I have a theory that everyone in the field reads Russian literature. I had loads of Dostoevsky, some Tolstoy and a couple of pulp detective novels for some chill-out reading. Crime and Punishment possibly left the biggest impression on me; I was out in Bolivia looking at, ​crime and punishment.

Linford:​ Where are your books?

Martyn: ​This is it. My thesis. Not published as yet. I’m putting together a book proposal for this.


Linford: ​Are there any non-anthropology books on your bookshelf?

Martyn: ​Yes there are. There are some philosophy books, Political Economy of Latin America. There’s Marx. Durkheim. Ghosts of my Life, by the brilliant Mark Fisher – about music, culture, depression. A great theorist.

There’s also my travelling shelf; I always have to have at least one book with me, whilst travelling, on the tube. I have musical biographies of musicians that I admire.

There’s Tortilla Flats by Steinbeck. I would say, that he is possibly my favourite novelist. Of course you need to have poetry, too. Mexico City Blues by Jack Kerouac.

Kaytrina: ​What do you think is the difference between your bookshelves and those of other anthropologists?

Martyn:​ Well, mine are much smaller. I’m just starting out. I’ve been using university libraries.

Kaytrina: ​Which book would you recommend to a student just starting out in anthropology?

Martyn: ​The Brian Morris Reader – Anthropology, Ecology and Anarchism. He’s founder of the department and always interesting to read. It has made me think about ecology in different ways.


Kaytrina: ​What do you like or dislike about your bookshelf?

Martyn:  ​Too small. I would like my bookshelves to be from floor-to-ceiling. To have a few more anthropological basics rather than having to go to a library when I needed to look at them.


Dr Martyn Wemyss was interviewed by Linford Superville and Kaytrina Falcini.

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