Sunday, 16 July 2017

No it's not anti-Semitism

Emmanuel Macron is starting to show his real colours, and the love-in with him of many non-French liberals hopefully will be over soon.   He's been meeting Benjamin Netanyahu, and has won great favour with Bibi (and so with the most rightwing government Israel has ever had) on account of his assertion that 'anti-Zionism is the new version of anti-Semitism'.   Actually, it isn't, and we need to nail this canard immediately.   No-one better for this task than Judith Butler.  Here is her classic essay on the topic:

No, it’s not anti-semitic: the right to criticise Israel · 21 August 2003


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Interview with Judith Butler: Worldliness, Collectivity and Dissent

Few contemporary philosophers have engaged more with movements of dissent in America and elsewhere than Judith Butler, one of the heroines of this blog.  Here is an interview with her where she discusses the performativity of protest, activism and dissent.  I am taking it from the Verso website; it was originally published on The Other Journal: An Intersection of Theology and Culture

We are Worldless Without One Another: An Interview with Judith Butler


Thursday, 29 June 2017

General Intellect in the Age of Twitter and Trump

What are intellectuals?   Does Ireland have any?

I've always had the sense that to be called an 'intellectual' in Ireland and in the context of Irish culture is, at best, a backhanded compliment.  It's a little like the way that the Irish Times,when it publishes a review or article by a university-based scholar, always describes the scholar not as a 'lecturer' or a 'professor' or a 'research fellow', but rather as an 'academic' - a kind of damnation by faint praise.   As is well known, even a clichĂ©, in other European cultures, intellectuals are persons accorded a kind of significant position in society, with high access to the media, not just sequestered in classrooms.  In 1960s Germany, the Frankfurt School philosophers and sociologists - Adorno, Horkheimer and Habermas pre-eminent among them - were central to the upheavals and debates of the student movements.  Intellectuals were significant in May '68 in Paris, too, though not always the ones we remember now.  But in Ireland, many people would tell you that we do not have such figures.  

In fact, of course, we do, but they are more likely to be historians or writers or journalists, than philosophers or political theorists or literary critics.  And nowadays those historians are likely to be university-based: one thinks of Diarmuid Ferriter, who spends so much time writing for the Irish Times or speaking on the radio that it's hard to imagine him finding the time to do much else.  One also thinks of Roy Foster, at his commanding citadel at Hertford College Oxford (now replaced by Ian McBride); or Joe Lee and the late Ronan Fanning, both of whom have at times written regular newspaper columns. Among the journalists, the pre-eminent figure today is and has for a long time been Fintan O'Toole.  And among writers, well the list is endless - Heaney while he was with us, Banville, Toibin, Enright, McGuinness - repeatedly, the media would turn to writers to distill some communal reaction to a particular event: 9/11, the Iraq war, the economic crash, particular atrocities of the Troubles.  But 'writers', at least Irish ones, are all-too often not very capable of conceptual or analytical thinking: they prioritise 'experience' over the abstract.  And so, the effect has sometimes been noble, but forms of bathos have also been displayed. Notably, last year, the Irish Times sought reactions to Britain's Brexit vote from Irish writers in the UK.  A more unrepresentative and ludicrous approach could hardly be conceived, as we were treated to Foster's wailing about access to his holiday home in France, and other liberals grinding their nicely polished teeth at the ignorance of the proles. 

Not surprisingly, then, these 'intellectuals' seem very far from intellectuals in the European sense: they are none of them theorists (Irish historiography remains notoriously empiricist or positivistic in its sense of the disinterring or making of knowledge - no room there for Foucauldian genealogy, or Hayden White's rhetorics of history-writing, or a properly Marxist history like that produced by the great British generation of Hobsbawm or Hill or Kiernan or Thompson), and they don't have the time or the inclination for that particular marriage of abstract thought and radical analysis which one associates with Deleuze or Marcuse, Said or Butler.  So we do have intellectuals in Ireland, but the sphere is oddly impoverished.

Back in the 1980s, the biggest single effort to change that situation was launched by Field Day, and in particular by Seamus Deane, the most gifted and important Irish critic then and now.   Deane had actually heralded what Field Day for a while became, with several long-forgotten essays, published in the early Seventies, on the idea of an intelligentsia and its desirability for Ireland.  That's actually what Field Day was, in the 1980s and early 1990s at least, with its theatre productions, its pamphlets, its massive anthologies, and then later its extensive book series and the Field Day Review: it was a kind of Irish version of the interventions in the public sphere of Herzen, Chernyshevsky, Belinsky, Bakunin and the other great Russian liberals of the nineteenth century: writers who took the cultural capital their literary prominence had given them, and who wagered that capital on political commentary.   To say this is both a measure of the honour and power of the Field Day effort, and also to note that it could no longer happen now.  It's almost impossible to imagine in early twenty-first century Ireland a comparable group of writers coming together in a civic-minded effort to organise a common public platform for radical ideas and socio-political reform or change.   This, though in many ways the need now is even greater than it was during the violent days of the Troubles.  The suppliant approach of the likes of Toibin to the plutocratic assemblies of national worthies at Farmleigh, in the early days of the economic crash in 2008 or 2009, is illustrative of the meagre intellectual resources available to us now.   

McKenzie Wark is a writer I have known of principally as a historian of the Situationists, but he's been active in many spheres of thought and politics.  Now teaching at the New School in Manhattan, he has a new book out from Verso, General Intellects, which tries, on an international scale, to pick out and give profiles of the most interesting intellectuals or critical thinkers of the generation after the great figures that someone of my generation grew up reading.   Nearly all of the great French radical thinkers are dead, though a few figures such as Badiou or Ranciere or Cixous still do important and striking work.  In Germany, Axel Honneth heads up the Frankfurt Institut, and Habermas still contributes to public debate.  But who comes after the giants who departed in the 1990s?   Scanning that newer terrain is the task Wark sets himself, and in so doing he stakes his own claim to join the new company.  Here is an excerpt from his new book, posted on the Verso site.  We in Ireland have a great deal to learn from him.


Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Prismatic Thought - 25,000 pageviews

Comrades and friends!

In an early masterpiece, Soul and Form, written before his revolutionary intervention in Marxism, Georg Lukacs suggested that the forms of literature are like the spectrum created by sunlight shining through a prism.   In this array of beams, he suggested, critical thought and writing is like ultraviolet light.

My hope is that this blog sometimes rises to the level of ultraviolet irradiation of the world and experience of what Adorno later called 'damaged life', whether in regard to Ireland or Palestine, or the world of ideas, politics and books, which are my principal interests.

This blog has just attained the impressive figure of 25,000 pageviews, over its five year history.   Thank you to all of my readers, and I hope you'll keep reading the blog.

As indicated by the very fine contribution by Graham MacPhee, I am very keen for friends and colleagues to offer guest posts.  If you are interested, please get in touch with me.


Monday, 5 June 2017

Israel IS The Occupation

Let us at last talk candidly about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which attains its fifth decade today.  The State of Israel is 69 years old.  The occupation of the Palestinian territories is 50 years old.  A long time has passed since the occupation could reasonably be described as a temporary arrangement (to borrow from Albert Reynolds), or as necessitated by Israeli security (in a typical racist logic, Israeli security always trumps Palestinian security).  The two state solution has long been a diplomatic figleaf.  It is now a 'delusion', as the Irish-American political scientist Padraig O'Malley says.

Very substantial historical evidence shows that Israel's swift and ruthless conquest of the Territories, and of Sinai and the Golan, in June 1967, was strategically and militarily unnecessary - it was not needed to secure Israel in the short or medium term.   Israel's leaders had long shown an interest in correcting the mistakes of 1948, and completing the conquest of all of historical Palestine, but David Ben-Gurion warned of the demographic problems such conquest would bring.  He was, of course, correct - see Ilan Pappe's new book Ten Myths About Israel.  But with Ben-Gurion retired, one major retarding influence on war was removed.  Israel has in the last few days released documentation of cabinet discussion in the immediate wake of the war, showing a variety of opinion in the government (which included Menachem Begin, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban) about 'what to do with' the 'Arabs' of the West Bank, about the desirability of 'transferring' 'Arabs' out of East Jerusalem and replacing them with Jews, about the need for a security corridor along the Jordan valley, among other ideas.

The point, then, is there is no radical break or difference between Israel before 1967, and Israel after 1967.  The Six-Day War was every bit as much about conquering Palestinian territory, for purposes of Israeli colonisation, as it was about neutralising Gamal Abdel Nasser or defeating Arab nationalism.  Just like 1948, the Six-Day War was accompanied by mass ethnic cleansing, since Zionism has always been thirsty to accumulate land but not Arabs - a further 300,000 Palestinians were displaced, to add to the 700,000 expelled in the earlier war.

1967 was not the first evidence of Israel's character as a highly aggressive, expansionist settler-colonial regime, but it was conclusive.  The Six Day War was a war of choice, Israel started it, had already planned for it, and has never seriously looked back. 

Corrective reading:

In his superb Image and Reality in the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Norman Finkelstein offered a meticulous demolition of the classic liberal myths of 1967.  Here he is interviewed by the editors of Mondoweiss:

Norman Finkelstein on the Six-Day-War and its myths

And also from Mondoweiss, an essay by one of Israel's most radical and distinguished sociologists, Gershon Schafir:

Why has the Occupation lasted this long?


Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism - Lukacs to Jameson

To mark the publication of two new books from Perry Anderson, Verso has posted excerpts from two of his earlier works - on Western Marxism - on its site.  These are analyses of the Western tradition and its culmination in Fredric Jameson, by a writer who himself is a major figure in that tradition.

This blog has often proclaimed its admiration of Perry Anderson.   I first began to read him while a graduate student. It was not essays in the New Left Review that caught my eye, or indeed in the London Review of Books - by the early 1990s, when I discovered him, clearly his favoured venues - but rather a pair of formidable books which collected earlier essays stretching back to the 1960s.  English Questions brought together articles of Anderson's on British history - political history and intellectual history, including his contributions to the 'Nairn-Anderson theses', co-written with his equally brilliant colleague Tom Nairn.  A Zone of Engagement - the battlefield metaphor is apposite - collects superb profiles and critiques of international figures in the recent or contemporary history of ideas, such as Isaiah Berlin, Marshall Berman, Geoffrey de Ste Croix, Michael Mann, and Andreas Hillgruber.  The book culminates in a stunning 110 page essay on Francis Fukuyama,'The Ends of History', elucidating the genealogy of post-Hegelian philosophical history culminating in Gehlen, Kojeve, Niethammer and Fukuyama himself - an extraordinary virtuoso performance of erudition, critique and style.

That last essay should not, in some ways, have been a surprise.  English Questions contains an essay equally exceptional though of a different kind.  'Components of the National Culture', published in 1969 when its author was under 30 years old, ranges over all the main currents in then-contemporary British intellectual culture - literary study, political theory, historiography, philosophy, economics.  Not merely this, but Anderson advances the radical idea that British intellectual culture had been shaped by a 'white immigration' - Namier, Wittgenstein, Berlin, among others - which had determined its characteristic conservative tenor in the twentieth century with its hostility to totalizing vision and its lack of a critical sociology. 'Components' shows all the virtues of 'The Ends of History' already in place - the extraordinary learning, the incisive critique, the polemical verve, the striking confidence across multiple disciplines - in a young scholar as yet without a firm academic position.

If anyone thinks that I can only praise Anderson, that is not quite the case.  My disappointment in him is that he has never attended at any length to his Irish patrimony.  It's not that he denies his background in a republican Anglo-Irish family from Waterford; or that he is uninterested in or ignorant of Ireland - it's more, I suspect, that his whole career has been built on a deliberate will to complicate and alienate his inherited tradition - British and Irish - by the admixture of an exceptional range of European intellectual influences.  When asked by an incautious journalist if he was English, Beckett famously replied 'Au contraire', and I suspect Anderson would share the sentiment.  But his learning and acuity make me thirsty to see these capacities trained on Irish materials at some point.  In the same Beckettian mood, he'd agree with Adorno that one must have tradition in oneself in order to hate it properly.  That Anderson is aware of his Irish background is not to be doubted; that he has not yet shown it his analytical hatred is perhaps to be regretted.

Nevertheless, his books on the Western Marxist tradition are one of the main strands in his own career.  Considerations on Western Marxism offers an account of the academic fate of defeated 'Western' Marxism (as compared to 'victorious' 'Eastern' Marxism institutionalised in the Soviet Union), in the post-1917 generations - Korsch, Gramsci and Lukacs, and then the Frankfurt School.   Arguments within English Marxism dramatised the debates about Marxist interpretations of British history in which Anderson was, along with figures such as Nairn, Ralph Miliband, and EP Thompson, a principal participant.   In the Tracks of Historical Materialism brought the story of Western Marxism up to the 1970s, with the structuralist moment in France, where historical materialism was replaced by what Anderson memorably referred to as the 'exorbitance of language' in thinkers such as Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida.  The Origins of Postmodernism, Anderson's study of the great American Marxist critic, Fredric Jameson, is the last movement in this quartet.

So I am posting here, from the Verso site, sections from the first, second, and last books in this grouping.  No better reading will be found anywhere, I submit.

Thematic Innovations of Western Marxism

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Ruining the University

Universities are one of the great inventions of that European civilization about which Gandhi expressed a wry sense of anticipation.  One of the engines of modernity, the intellectual powerhouses of culture and science, the very machinery of what creates humanity.  Unfortunately, one of the other engines of modernity - capitalism - has invested the bastions of the Western university with ever-greater success in the last 50 years or so.  I am not expressing some misbegotten nostalgia for the features - so delicately and sometimes hilariously teased open by Virginia Woolf in her glancing and brilliant essay A Room of One's Own - of the nineteenth-century university, which was largely attended by a small, aristocratic and haut-bourgeois, male, fraction of the population of Western countries.  It's been apparent for quite some time now that where, in the 1980s, defenders of the 'traditional' humanities such as Alvin Kiernan and Allan Bloom in America or Edna Longley in Ireland believed that the problem was 'theory' and the politicisation of humanistic studies, the real enemy was and is the arrival of market logic and managerial bureaucracy in the administration of universities.  In other words, the leaching of neoliberalism into every aspect of university life has vastly greater potential to damage culture and education than any conflation of 'Derry and Derrida' (Longley's witty but ludicrous and ignorant notion of Seamus Deane's literary-political project).

Two of the best writers on this situation are Stefan Collini and Christopher Newfield.  The latter's Unmaking the Public University is one of the best studies of the attack on public higher education in America underway for the last couple of decades.  Collini, a brilliant veteran intellectual historian at Cambridge, has for some time been both analyzing and himself developing a powerful liberal public criticism in Britain. His collections of essays - Absent Minds and Common Reading - both delineate and push forward that essayistic criticism best represented in Britain by the London Review of Books, and by a proliferating range of journals in America such as the Los Angeles Review of Books and n+1.  More recently, Collini has turned his attention to the assault on the British university system by Conservative governments.  As Marina Warner has pointed out about him, Collini has ground his way through the interminable and dreary paperwork of the legislation which promises to destroy the great universities of Britain - an example perhaps of Foucault's 'relentless erudition' - and in doing so performed a major and exemplary act of critique in the service of the wide British public, precisely of the kind he earlier wrote about with such verve.  He has published his analyses in many fora, including the London Review, and also in two substantial books - What are Universities For? (2012), and Speaking of Universities, published earlier this year. 

Here are two articles, both from the LARB, stemming from this work.  First Michael Meranze, a historian at UCLA, reviews Speaking of Universities:

Remaking the University: The Idea of the English University

Secondly, a review by Newfield of Andrew McGettigan's The Great University Gamble, an excoriating study of the marketisation of English higher education:

The Counterreformation in Higher Education


Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Hollowing-Out of Universities Continues

There has been much talk on the Right in the last decade (or more) of the damaging effects on university campuses in America, Britain and even in Ireland of 'political correctness' - allegedly attempts to silence dissent by militant cabals of students and professors who deploy the rhetorics of identity politics (feminisms, queer thought, black and postcolonialist movements).  Mostly, it must be said, the accusations of 'political correctness' come from the Right and the far Right, which seek to use the liberal forum of the university institution to advance highly illiberal ideas and policies.

But now we have more concrete examples of the truly sinister and institutionally powerful 'political correctness' being mobilized by the neoliberal or managerial university, in the age of the 'war on terror' and of Trumpism.  Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian teaching at St Edmund Hall Oxford, has written a brilliant article for the London Review of Books, revealing the ways that British government policies pitched against 'extremism' on campuses bleed into and infect the capillary activities of university life.  At this link, you can also listen to Professor Nabulsi on audio:

And here is an article - from Jacobin -  showing the ever-widening gap between America's small number of rich universities and its state and public systems,  where the Ivy League reproduce privilege and inequality even as public education is filleted - just in case you had any other delusions about universities as sites of liberal values: 


Diary - Blogging, Discontinuity, Revolution

I've left another long gap in my blog.   This is regrettable on a number of counts. Most cynically, one keeps up one's readership by regular posting.  When one does not post, reader drift away and are lost.  More to the point, perhaps, there is so much to write about, or to be angry about.  Christopher Hitchens used to say that being angry was what got him out of bed in the morning - that was in the Better Old Days, before Hitchens himself became one of the expanding number of things to be angry about.  But he had a point - the only antidote to Trumpism, Brexitism, Zionism, Varadkarism and Fine Gaelism generally, the dump that is the mainstream Irish media - the only antidote to these things is 'a ruthless criticism of everything', as the young and hopeful Marx once wrote.   I've been slack in my contribution to this criticism, due to a variety of personal and work-related problems.   But, for now at least, I am back.

I've been reading, all-too slowly, about the history of the Russian Revolution.  I've whipped with great pleasure through A People's History of the Russian Revolution, by Neil Faulkner.  I am reading, much more slowly, John Reed's Ten Days That Shook The World - reading it slowly is foolish, because the book moves at a breakneck pace, and one should read it breathlessly.   I have a short history of the Revolution by Sheila Fitzpatrick waiting to go.   We live, of course, in the centenary year of the great Revolution, but its commemoration is a mixed affair.   Western historians are either blissfully hostile, or, if they are sympathetic to the Revolution, adopt a modest and qualified tone.   Fitzpatrick is a distinguished liberal historian who negotiates very well towards the latter pole.  Here in the LRB (March 30), she reviews the state of play:

Sheila Fitzpatrick

No greater contemporary inheritor of the radical spirit of the Revolution than Tariq Ali.   Here are two articles of his, one a list of further reading, the other his take on the legacy of Lenin (from Jacobin)

Let no-one doubt that the Revolution was also a profoundly important moment for women and for feminism:

More to follow!


Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Women's Resistance - The Theory and the Practice

In preparation for tomorrow's International Women's Day, and global women's strike, I am posting three articles here.  The first, from the Verso site, is an interview with Judith Butler, maybe the pre-eminent radical philosopher now active in the Anglophone world.   I've written about Butler several times already - in celebration of her winning of the Adorno Prize and the unholy flak she faced when she did so, as a brave anti-Zionist Jewish intellectual, in particular.   But while I began reading Butler properly only in the last decade, when she wrote increasingly about Palestine and the Middle East, it must immediately be admitted that her career extends at least another decade further back, to Subjects of Desire (1987), her study of French Hegelianism, and then to Gender Trouble (1990), her groundbreaking and career-making account of gendered identity not as an essence or mere biology, but as a constantly reiterated performative function.  This problematic has not fallen away from Butler's thinking since those early books, and in this interview, which was made by Jean-Philippe Cazier to honour the publication of a French translation of her book Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly and first appeared at the Diacritik site, we find her re-thinking the nature of demonstration and public politics in performative terms.

The second and third articles on on notable examples of women's struggle in two widely separated parts of the world, Argentina and Palestine.  In each region, women's battles grow out of particular or local difficulties, but, via protest and representation, will achieve global resonances tomorrow.  The article on women in Argentina comes from Jacobin; that on women and the fight for Palestinian rights and independence comes from ElectronicIntifada.

First, Butler and Cazier:

Acting in Concert: a conversation with Judith Butler

Next, Veronica Gago and Augustina Santomaso on the situation in Argentina:

Argentina’s Life-or-Death Women’s Movement

Lastly, Sofia Arias and Bill Mullen on Palestinian women:



Sunday, 5 March 2017

Global Women's Strike - Mass Protest on International Women's Day, March 8, 2017

Next Wednesday, International Women's Day, in over 40 countries women will march in protest, agitating for reproductive rights, and against violence in the economic, domestic and institutional spheres.  In Ireland, the particular focus for the strikers will be the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which disgracefully equates the right to life of a foetus to that of the woman who bears it.

To mark this great event of mass protest and agitation, I am posting an article on the strike, from Jacobin, and also the LRB spring lecture by Professor Mary Beard, the brilliant English classicist based at Cambridge, which is on 'Women in Power'.  First, on the strike - Cinzia Arruzza and Tithi Bhattacharya explain its meaning

What the Women’s Strike Means

And then Mary Beard, from the London Review of Books website:


Saturday, 25 February 2017

Power, Alienation and Truth - Chaplin and Chomsky

Here are two excellent essays from the Jacobin site, just to cheer up your weekend.   Firstly, a wonderful discussion by Owen Hatherly of Charlie Chaplin, and the early admiration of him and his politics by the Russian revolutionary film industry.  Hatherly's work will be familiar to many readers of the Guardian, the New Statesman, and the London Review of Books.   Here he reveals the contradictory and at times strange effects of the love of Chaplin displayed by film-makers such as Kuleshov, Barnet and Pudovkin, where pro-Bolshevism is wedded to the industrial-technocratic values of Taylorism and Fordism.   This movement received the intellectual reinforcement of the great literary critic and theorist of literature as alienated language, Viktor Shklovsky, who saw in Chaplin's jerky movements a version of the actions of the industrial worker.

Charlie Chaplin in Moscow 

Moving from Shklovskian 'ostranienie' to a different form of alienation, Daniel Geary, a historian working at Trinity College Dublin, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Noam Chomsky's great essay 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', first published in the New York Review of Books in 1967, at the height of America's war in Vietnam.  Chomsky's essay, which would receive an even more formidable iteration in 1977 in his Huizinga Lecture, 'Intellectuals and the State', took the world of American policy-formulation as its subject and turned it inside-out, in the manner of all great critics: he presented American liberals with a radically alienated vision of the intellectual scene with which they had thought they were so familiar.  This essay was essentially a manifesto for the extraordinary life of dissent which Chomsky has led ever since, and which he has always believed is open to any ordinary person endowed with some curiosity and a moral imagination.  'The Responsibility of Intellectuals' is reprinted in American Power and the New Mandarins, also published in 1967, Chomsky's first openly political book, and also the place where you'll find 'Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship', an overwhelming indictment of mainstream American social science and its complicity with the war in Indochina.  'Intellectuals and the State' is collected in another superb volume, published early in the Reagan era, Towards a New Cold War.  Chomsky is not infallible, as Geary points out, but what a bracing example he offers to us all, as he nears his ninetieth year.  Here is Chomsky's article, and then Geary's re-reading of it:

A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals

Truth to Power


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Performing the Revolution - Tariq Ali on the Communist Manifesto

Yesterday - I should have written about this before enthusing about WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton - was the 169th anniversary of the publication of Marx and Engels' Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), probably the greatest and most influential political pamphlet ever written.   Like the Proclamation of the Irish Republic of 1916, the Manifesto is a tremendous piece of performative writing (in JL Austin's famous phrase) - its being read brings into existence that to which it refers, it does things, it makes things happen (in this case, on the most epic of scales), and this goes a long way to explaining its enduring power and haunting effect.

Here is Tariq Ali - commentator, film-maker, street-fighter - on the Manifesto - from the Verso website:

Tariq Ali: Introduction to The Communist Manifesto


American Psychosis and the Yellow Press - WJT Mitchell and Robert Darnton after Trump's First Thirty Days

Critical Inquiry is one of the finest, most stylish and most important literary/cultural critical journals in the English-speaking world - here's its website: Critical Inquiry - Official Site  Published out of the University of Chicago, it's long been edited by Bill Mitchell, himself a brilliant critic of both literary and visual culture.  Here he is, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, in an essay which was originally given as a lecture at the University of Geneva, just before Trump's inauguration:

American Psychosis: Trumpism and the Nightmare of History

I first discovered Robert Darnton, one of America's great cultural historians and a major scholar of eighteenth century France, through his wonderful collection of essays, The Great Cat Massacre (1984), and then his classic study of The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (1995).  This book, which builds on Darnton's earlier study, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982), is a superb account of the chapbook and pamphlet literature of the streets, which - by way of satire, polemic, pornography, and critique - helped to undermine the Bourbon monarchy.  Long on the staff at Princeton, Darnton now is University Professor and Director of the University Library at Harvard.   Here is Darnton's personal website, which contains online or pdf versions of many of his essays and reviews: Home | Robert Darnton  And here he writes about the history of the late nineteenth century 'yellow press', a notorious earlier instance of the creation of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' - an essay from the New York Review of Books:

The True History of Fake News


Sunday, 19 February 2017

Armed Insurrection - James Connolly and the European Context

Of all the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, James Connolly, the great labour leader and agitator, was the only one with military experience.  It was, after all, as an underage recruit to the British Army that Connolly first came to Ireland.   But it's also worth remembering that later in life, during the First World War, and as the pressure for an Irish uprising grew ever stronger, Connolly wrote extensively on insurrectionary history and techniques, preparing the way for the struggle to come.

As WK Anderson pointed out in his excellent James Connolly and the Irish Left (1994), Connolly's principal self-identification was as a revolutionary, and all he did was contributory to that goal and purpose.  He was not a militarist, and he was sceptical of the 'physical force tradition' in Irish republicanism.  But Connolly was no pacifist, either, and recourse to force was always one of the options at the disposal of the revolution as far as he was concerned.  

The interest in armed doctrine and ideas in Connolly is mirrored in the geo-tactical ideas of his great Italian contemporary Gramsci, whose thought - as Edward Said noted many years ago - is suffused with the metaphors of military action: territories, blocs, mutual siege, civil conquest, war of manoeuvre and war of position.   I am posting here links to Connolly's essays on earlier uprisings, side by side with an essay on Armed Insurrection, 'a work of illegal propaganda written by a collective of Comintern military and political specialists', including Ho Chi Minh and Palmiro Togliatti, and now reissued by Verso: 

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Remembering Red Vienna

In January, I was fortunate enough to visit Vienna - to my shame, this was only my first visit to a German-speaking country and city.  I spent five days walking the city - visiting the Hundertwasser apartment building and museum, taking the tram back and forth on the Ringstrasse, absorbing the decadence of Klimt and Schiele at the Belvedere.  I also went out to the Zentralfriedhof, where, on an icy afternoon, I could wander quietly among the graves of great composers - Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Gluck and a whole dynasty of Strausses - and see how Austrians remember their presidents, including Kurt Waldheim.  The massive graveyard embodies formidable historical lessons for a callow denizen of the western islands of Europe - there is a large plot and commemorative apparatus of statues, walls, and gardens for the Red Army, which liberated Vienna in 1945, and there are two large Jewish plots, one of more recent vintage, the other older, with graves going back at least to the nineteenth century.  I spent some time wandering the near-wilderness of the latter, picking my way among headstones still tilted or smashed from Nazi-era vandalism.  Walking the perimeter of this section, which contains the graves of various Rothschilds and of Arthur Schnitzler, I paused silently to look down one of the many tree-lined corridors - a deer stood looking at me, vulnerable and beautiful.

I should have been reading Musil, and learning from Carl Schorske's classic study, Fin-de-Siecle Vienna, but my satchel held other books.  One can't always co-ordinate one's reading with one's location.  But in this often immaculately-preserved city, with its wonderfully efficient public transport and overwhelming imperial architectural and cultural legacy, it is hard not to be forced to think historically just as one trudges the streets.  Even as I note that Vienna was the birthplace of both Adolf Hitler and Theodor Herzl, and is now home to an increasingly right-leaning political culture, it's good to be reminded that the political dispensation has not always been conservative.  Here is an essay, taken from the Jacobin website but originally published in German at LuxEmburg, which shows the other side of the story: 


Class War and Ideological Vision in the United States -

Mike Davis: MacArthur Fellow, former truck driver, genealogist of catastrophe - surely if ever there was an historian equipped to dissect Trumpian America, it is he.  So, here he is on the Jacobin website, wielding the scalpel as only he can:

The Great God Trump and the White Working Class

And also from Jacobin, a rich article from Alexander Livingston on the background to the vision of Steve Bannon, perhaps the leading ideologue of the Trump Administration.  Livingston reminds us of how important it is to take Trump's confederates seriously, to trace their inheritance within strains of American political tradition, and not simply dismiss them as sui generis ignoramuses: 


Thursday, 9 February 2017

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will - remembering Gramsci with Stuart Hall

On February 10, 1891, Antonio Gramsci, one of the most remarkable Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, was born in Sardinia.  Gramsci spent much of the last decade of his life in Fascist jails, but it was in prison that his extraordinary, fragmentary, exhaustive notebooks were composed.   Frequently brilliant jottings, musings, prolegomena, speculations, historical outlines, theoretical analyses, book plans, unfinished essays, anticipated books - on historical issues, political problems, philosophical and philological themes - the Quaderni del carcere constituted a trove and a labyrinth for generations of leftwing scholars and activists coming in Gramsci's wake - endlessly useful and suggestive by virtue of their unfinished character, but also ripe for controversy and contestation.  Perry Anderson, often invoked and admired on this blog, has two books coming out this spring, both of which spring from his longtime interest in Gramsci.  Anderson's booklength essay, 'The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci', originally published in the New Left Review in 1977, was an important appropriation and explication of Gramsci's thought in Britain, coming after the publication of Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's seminal collection Selections from the Prison Notebooks in 1971, and displaying a crucial underpinning for the essays on British history developed by Anderson and Tom Nairn: the 'Nairn-Anderson theses'.   Now Anderson is reissuing this essay in book form, alongside fresh work on the genealogy of the term 'hegemony', which was developed and manipulated in virtuoso terms by the Italian communist.

Gramsci's most famous insight was that in Western liberal capitalist democracies, the socialist revolution faced not the brittle redoubts of a quasi-feudal imperial dynasty, and a disorganised peasantry, as had been the case in Tsarist Russia.  Rather, in the great industrialised powers of Europe - Britain, France, Germany, Italy - any revolutionary effort would find itself confronting richly variegated and textured societies, whose cultural, educational, religious and civil structures themselves reinforced the more openly coercive machinery of the state.  The revolution could not progress simply by seizing the state apparatus, but must rather prepare a long war of ideological contest and the creation of a new weltanschaung, or a new 'common sense'.  This ideological leadership Gramsci called 'hegemony' in its status quo form - the revolution, to be successful, needed to elaborate a 'counter-hegemony'.  

Gramsci's powerful sense of civil society as a battleground where, in Foucault's words, 'discourse is the power to be seized'; his intuition that culture must be understood as itself a kind of material force in society where traditional and new identities are made and unmade, was particularly important for the brilliant Jamaican sociologist and theorist Stuart Hall, most especially in his analyses of Thatcherism in the 1980s.  Hall recognised the striking success of the Conservative Party in 1979 and its basis in an exceptional hegemonic bid, where Mrs Thatcher and her confederates were carried to power on a substantial working-class vote - a vote where a major bloc in British proletarian society was ideologically captured by its enemies, and persuaded to vote for them.  In the Trumpian moment in America, Hall's deployment of Gramsci's insights finds a renewed pertinence.  Here is a section of Hall's book The Hard Road to Renewal, excerpted on the Verso website:

Monday, 6 February 2017

'The role of accuser is the only one appropriate for the oppressed' - Learning from Blanqui

Louis-Auguste Blanqui was one of Marx's most formidable and uncompromising revolutionary socialist contemporaries.  Marx admired Blanqui, while also differing from him in important ways, when it came to thinking the role of the proletarian masses in revolutionary change.  He was born just over 212 years ago.  Here, from the Verso website, is an essay on the French agitator and political prisoner by Doug Greene, author of a forthcoming study, Spectres of Communiism: Blanqui and Marx:

Why Blanqui?


Saturday, 4 February 2017

Prelude - David Bromwich on Trump's First Two Weeks

Only lately have I become aware of the work of David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale.  But he's a veteran scholar of Romanticism, with a very fine intellectual biography of Edmund Burke in progress (first volume of two published in 2015, second on the way), a critique of teaching and theory in the university, and a collection of political essays now due out in paper, Moral Imagination.  That  title, derived from Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, should make it clear that Bromwich is not remotely in hock to the poststructuralist or more broadly 'theoretical' wave of the last four decades in the Anglophone academy.   But this has not made him any less formidable a critic; rather the contrary, as he has turned himself into a blisteringly powerful opponent of the Obama Administration - chiefly in the pages of the London Review of Books - and is now entering the lists to face the Trump Administration.  The term 'moral imagination' seems in just two words to sum up a great deal of what was lacking in Trump personally hitherto, and is now absent from his government.   Here is Bromwich's opening salvo, from the current LRB:

Act One, Scene One


Friday, 3 February 2017

Prepared for the Worst - A History of the New Left Review

In the last couple of years, Perry Anderson and Francis Mulhern, both veterans of the New Left Review, have written long and considered articles on the new radical and leftwing journalism in the United States.  One of the journals they have picked out as noteworthy for its dynamism, ambition and intelligence is Jacobin, to which this blog frequently draws its readers' attention.  Another, perhaps more stylish and 'literary', is n+1, started by, amongst others, Benjamin Kunkel and Mark Greif.  Greif has recently published a collection of his essays, under the rather silly (alas) title Against Everything (just the kind of undergraduate attitudinizing which a writer like Adorno would have scorned).  Kunkel had earlier published an smart, streetwise introduction to contemporary Marxism hot on the heels of his fictional output.

Now I see (belatedly) that n+1 returned the favour with a long and intelligent review by Nikil Saval of a history of the NLR by Duncan Thompson, Pessimism of the Intellect? A History of the New Left Review (2009).  Saval, interestingly, will have none of Thompson's castigation of Perry Anderson's 'Olympian' 'pessimism', and sees resources of hope in the Review yet.   Here is Saval's review-essay, from the n+1 website:

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Coming to Terms with Defeat - An Interview with Enzo Traverso

Enzo Traverso is one of the most interesting writers I've encountered in the last couple of years.  A radical historian of ideas, he teaches now at Cornell, but has a background on the Italian far left.  His Fire and Blood, published in 2015, is a remarkable intellectual history of the World Wars of the twentieth century, conceived as a great and terrible European civil war.  The End of Jewish Modernity is a sad and grim stock-taking of the fate of the great Jewish contribution to European Enlightenment - from Spinoza to Benjamin - and its decline with the advent of Jewish ethnic nationalism, that is, Zionism.  A new pair of books is on the way, led  by Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History and Memory (out from Columbia last month), where Traverso suggests resources for the reinvention of the contemporary left in the melancholy of defeat.  Here is an interview with Traverso, reprinted on the Verso Books website, but first published by LibĂ©ration and translated by David Broder:

"The Left is a history of defeats": an interview with Enzo Traverso


Monday, 23 January 2017

Predator Drone - American Foreign Policy under Obama

I have neglected my blog, again.   Christmas is a busy time, and I also was travelling.   But there are many things to discuss in the bad new days.

Not least of these things would be the realisation that the 'bad new days' - the days of the rise of the European Right, the election of Trump, and the British Brexit vote - have not come from nowhere, but rather they find their origin in much of the politics of the recent good old days.  And of course those 'good old days' are the Obama administration, in the eyes of many Irish and American liberals.

It's been hard not to be struck, over the last two weeks, by the contrast in personal styles, speech, and demeanour between President Trump, as he now is, and ex-President Obama.  Obama is tall, elegant, handsome.  Though his speech can at times seem stiff, with that oddly clipped manner he has, he's also capable of high eloquence.  His singing of 'Amazing Grace', when he visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, after the massacre there of nine worshipers by a white supremacist, showed an enormous and impressive confidence in hitting the right note with his audience.  Many other examples could be adduced.  Likewise his and Secretary Kerry's late speeches regarding Israel and the long death of the 'two state solution' in Israel/Palestine finally revealed a somewhat more realistic vision of the Middle East than we've heard from senior American politicians for some time.   Compare this to the ranting, bilious and hyper-aggressive vulgarity of President Trump, both as president-elect, and now as president even in the last four days, and one begins to see how Obama-nostalgia might set in.

Walter Benjamin once said that nostalgia could be the basis for a radical critique of the present.  But Obama nostalgia is not that kind of nostalgia.  We need to remember that Obama's foreign policy, in spite of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize, has been deeply problematic, and that it was marked primarily by continuities with the policies of the George W Bush administration and the general trends of American grand strategy since the end of the Cold War..

No-one has explained this more forcefully or pithily than Perry Anderson.  Trained as a historian, longtime editor of the New Left Review, Anderson nowadays has become an extraordinary radical man of letters, who takes as his ambit the entirety of the humanistic and social scientific disciplines.  The sheer effrontery of his tackling, by turns, issues such as the historical novel, Indian state nationalism, and the American foreign policy apparatus, and writing about them with an exceptional mixture of style and what Michel Foucault called 'relentless erudition', makes him stand out in a mostly dreary landscape of academic professionalism and management jargon.

Anderson's most recent book is American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, originally published as a special issue of the New Left Review.   It consists of two major sections - 'Imperium' and 'Consilium' - which chart, respectively, the history of American attitudes to the world beyond the borders of the Republic, and the thought of major contemporary thinkers on foreign policy working inside the Washington Beltway (Robert Kagan, Francis Fukuyama, Zbigniew Brezinski, amongst others).  'Imperium' ends with a chapter on 'The Incumbent', that is, Obama.  Anderson here reveals and reminds us of just how conservative Obama's foreign policy was, and of just how much of Trump's posture was already enabled or even put in place by his putatively liberal predecessor.

Predator DroneAmerican Foreign Policy Under Obama


Saturday, 21 January 2017

Graham MacPhee on Trump's Inauguration

Today I wish to announce a new development at Reflectionsfromdamagedlife, a guest-posting by Graham MacPhee on the intellectual implications of Trump's inauguration.  I am delighted that Graham has offered this essay to my blog, and I'd encourage any other friends, comrades or interested persons to contact me too, if you are interested in doing likewise.


Trump’s Inauguration: What Could Critical Theory Learn?
Guest post by Graham MacPhee

The inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States raises immediate questions about the current state of democracy and the priorities for political action both within the US and beyond. But it might also cause those of us involved in the academic discourse of critical theory to reflect on our own theoretical frameworks and assumptions, not least because of the apparent inability of contemporary theoretical discourses in the humanities to account for the current predicament. Is there anything to be learned for our own theoretical endeavors from the dynamics of social resentment and political disenchantment which Trump’s campaign was able to harness, exploit, and channel to such effect?
            Although published a year before the election, I’d suggest that Wendy Brown’s recent book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone, 2015) suggests that there is, even if the nature of the election poses significant challenges to her analysis. But for the purposes of addressing the theoretical lessons of the Trump’s election, what is remarkable is the extent of her revision of some of the basic assumptions of contemporary theory, a revision whose implications, it seems to me, have been insufficiently acknowledged or thought through.
As Brown makes clear, and as reviewers have noted, the book uses but also criticizes Michel Foucault’s account of neoliberalism; but the character and implications of Brown’s critique are far beyond what we’ve seen in orthodox theory for a long time. Startlingly, given the extent of her indebtedness to Foucault, Brown points out that his all-encompassing vision of power is wholly bereft of a conception of politics or political action: “there is no political body, no demos acting in concert (even episodically) or expressing aspirational sovereignty; there are few social forces from below and no shared powers of rule or shared struggles for freedom” (73). Observing that “homo politicus is not a character in Foucault’s story” (86), Brown further notes that in constructing his account of neoliberalism, “Foucault averted his glance from capital itself as a historical and social force” (75).
            Reviewers (as far as I can see) have tended to regard these insights as tactical adjustments to a theoretical edifice that remains largely intact. But given the extraordinary preeminence accorded to Foucault’s notions of governmentality and biopower in the Anglophone academy, I would suggest they amount to much more than this. Indeed, in working through the implications of this critique, Undoing the Demos significantly revises what might be regarded as the network of unacknowledged assumptions that—in the wake of “critical theory” and the “theory wars”—have coalesced as “theory.”
Most obvious is Brown’s rehabilitation of the “demos” or “people”—presumably not so far away from the (non-ethnically defined) people (Volk) that Hegel had identified as locating any formation of ethical life (Sittlichkeit). Equally explicit is her retrieval of “freedom” as an open and revisable political concept, “precisely the kind of individual and collaborative freedom associated with homo politicus for self-rule and rule with others” (110). More obliquely, though unmistakably, Undoing the Demos envisages a subjectivity whose cogency far exceeds the dispersal of deconstruction and the passivity of “subject position”: rather, it is “the resource for opposing [neoliberalism] with another set of claims and another vision of existence” (87; emphasis added). And at a more technical level, but just as challenging for contemporary orthodoxy, is her insistence that “capital and capitalism are not reducible to an order of reason,” and that “capitalism has drives that no discourse can deny” (75–76).
Together demos, freedom, and an operative subjectivity allow a critical return to the language of the Western philosophical tradition, to the language of “city and soul” (22). The extent of Brown’s rewriting of the last three decades of theory in the Anglophone academy is surely remarkable: against the dominance of theoretical anti-humanism, she can write without irony of “human striving” as a value (11); and against the anti-political language of governmentality, she can affirm that “moral reflection and association making—these are the qualities that generate our politicalness” (88).
            To be quite clear, my intention here is not to accuse Wendy Brown of intellectual bad faith, of dodging between positions without owning up to it: indeed, far from it. In my view, Undoing the Demos exhibits a refreshing sense of intellectual responsibility in rethinking a theoretical orthodoxy that has become manifestly disabling in the face of the deepening political catastrophe of neoliberal globalization. Her critical retrieval of the demos, of freedom, of a cogent subjectivity, and of a sense of the dynamics of capital that exceed discourse, are intellectually honest responses to a predicament that is growing worse daily. And if reviewers have not picked up on the profound nature of her book’s challenge to prevailing orthodoxy, that’s hardly her fault. Brown is quite upfront in her critique of Foucault, and if she remains tentative about the implications of this critique for reconceiving subjectivity, history, freedom, and the shape of democracy, there are perhaps good historical reasons why.
My point is different. The lesson I take from Undoing the Demos is that we are enjoined to rethink our theoretical coordinates in light of the political collapse that confronts us. But in that case, we need to be attentive both to the changing shape of our unfolding predicament and to the problems or blockages in our own ways of registering and thinking it. The recent election of Donald Trump as president (notwithstanding his losing the popular vote) does not, to my mind, square with Brown’s account of the absolute subordination of city and soul to the market in neoliberalism. And therefore it requires us to reexamine even her remarkable revision of the coordinates of contemporary theory.
            For all its critique of Foucault’s exclusion of subjectivity, intersubjectivity, and therefore politics, Undoing the Demos nonetheless reimposes these very same exclusions—but subsequently. While the political experience of subjectivity as homo politicus may once have been operative, neoliberalism is seen as “a distinctive mode of reason, of the production of subjects” (21) in which homo oeconomicus—the register of subjectivity exercised in the market—liquidates homo politicus, so “undoing the demos.” Further, homo oeconomicus is denied the possibility of ever generating a new political response, of ever resuscitating homo politicus, since it is now said to have been hollowed out of the interest that traditionally drove civil society. “With the ascendency of neoliberalism,” Brown writes, “interest has ceased to anchor or characterize homo oeconomicus” (78): and so, she concludes, “homo oeconomicus today may no longer have interest at its heart, indeed, may no longer have a heart at all” (84).
Without a heart, the residual homo oeconomicus is bereft of the chaotic and nonidentical striving of interest, which means that there is no difference, no nonidentity, between soul, city, and market. The economic rationality of “neoliberal reason,” now shorn even of the heart’s self-love, “configures both soul and city” without remainder, residue, or nonidentity (27). Which means that the new face of power—neoliberalism as a mode of rationality—is at once absolute and everywhere, pervading and dominating subjectivity, city, and market.
Brown’s reduction of neoliberalism to an abstract “order of normative reason” (30) thus takes with one hand what it gives with the other. If the city is made identical with the market, and the soulexcluded from the political—has no heart, then where is the basis of that “moral reflection and association making” which “are the qualities that generate our politicalness” (88)?
            Whatever else might be said of the social dynamics capitalized on by Donald Trump, they cannot be accused of being “heartless” in this sense—of lacking the chaotic and nonidentical striving of interest and the anger and self-deceit of the heart (see Arlie Hochschild, “I Spent Five Years with Some of Trump’s Biggest Fans,” Mother Jones, September/October 2016). Driving the Republicans' massive electoral gains in 2016 (and underpinning the staggering irony of the Democratic Party’s rejection of Senator Sander’s candidacy) is a significant divergence between popular sentiment and the dominant neoliberal accounts of political and economic reality—even if the neoliberal project is the ultimate beneficiary.
However we are to characterize the Republican sweep of presidency, Congress, governorships, and state houses in 2016, Brown’s conception of the subordination of soul and city to the abstract economic logics of neoliberalism does not work. This outcome happened precisely because market, soul, and city are not identical; and equally, this nonidentity could have fostered other outcomes, had the political forces squared up differently. Brown’s absolutization of power as neoliberal rationality ignores not only the irrationality of this upsurge but also the potency of subjectivity and its responsiveness to the dynamics of capital, elements that are by no means inseparable.
For all its ironies, Trump’s election urgently points to the need to revise many of contemporary theory’s orthodoxies and assumptions. Most obviously, the inability to develop a conception of subjectivity as plural yet cogent has not only made theory blind to the ways in which the dynamics of subjectivity are actually unfolding, but has left it unable to defend and develop public institutions—which emerge through the nonidentity of city, soul, and market—that might substantiate a vision of freedom and justice.
This connection was articulated two decades ago by the British philosopher Gillian Rose in her Mourning Becomes Law (Cambridge University Press, 1996):
The presentation of power as plural yet total and all pervasive, and of opposition to power . . . as the anarchic community, unwittingly and unwillingly participates in a restructuring of power which undermines those semi-autonomous institutions . . . which alleviate the pressure of the modern state on the individual. The plural but total way of conceiving power leaves the individual more not less exposed to the unmitigated power of the state. (21)
Perhaps one lesson we might learn from the contradictory, often irrational, yet also understandable dynamics that led to Trump’s election is to recognize how the generalization of difference in abstract schemas (discourse, language, power/knowledge, or governmentality) means not only the absolutization of power but also the liquidation of the nonidentity of social and political experience upon which any alternative politics relies. As Rose had warned, “when a monolithic [and] plural character is attributed to power . . . this attribution perpetuates blindness to the reconfiguration of power which we may be assisting by our unarticulated characterization of it” (21).

Graham MacPhee is an academic based in Philadelphia. He is the author of The Architecture of the Visible (2002) and Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies (2011).

© Graham MacPhee 2017