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

Conor

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: 




Conor


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!

Conor