Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category
“In front of the vacant Mausoleum of the First Leader an old woman stood alone. She wore a woollen scarf wrapped round a woollen hat, and both were soaked. In outstretched fists she held a small framed print of V.I.Lenin. Rain bubbled the image, but his indelible face pursued each passer-by. Occasionally, a committed drunk or some chattering thrush of a student would shout across at the old woman, at the thin light veering off the wet glass. But whatever the words, she stood her ground, and she remained silent.”
The Porcupine. Julian Barnes. (1992)
In Making Trouble (2007) Lynne Segal asked what become of the ‘dangerous’ young radicals as they age. For her it was the “bonds we forged in collective efforts not just to wrestle with the world, but also to try to change it which, for a while at least, gave us our strongest sense of ourselves” that would indelibly mark how people develop.
How this sense of the self both changes and endures over time is one of the most fundamental aspects of being human. But we are not separate islands. As Segal suggests in Out of Time our “collective” actions mark the process of ageing with great weight. The process of ageing cannot be caged in the individual’s own life, still less mastered through self-help manuals based on individualism.
One of the contributors to the influential Beyond the Fragments (1980), which brought a libertarian rush of personal feelings into left politics, in Out of Time Lynne Segal relates her private experience of ageing to the world beyond the Self. From her own life, “literary and political, of the women’s movement as an activist, a scholar, a teacher and a writer”, she reaches out to explore multiple physical, physical and social aspects of ageing. Novels, psychology, paintings, the philosophy of personal identity over time, and the sociology and politics of the increasing numbers of the elderly, are employed to mark out a stunning and thought-provoking book.
Segal retains her emphasis on the left. There are some people, as they say, for whom the glow of that commitment continues to shine through all the defeats and set-backs that we have faced over the decades. “Entering old age, almost all those leftists and feminists I knew forty years ago hold much of the same political views as then. There is no shortage of older radicals who continue to support struggles of justice, equality and a safer, greener more peaceful world.”(Page 54)
She is equally resilient in her feminism and sexual politics. From Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiographical La Force d’âge (1970) to her La Viellesse (1970) Segal draws on images of the ageing female body as something “pitiable” in the eyes of others. She talks of how elderly women become in simply invisible, undesired. The “double standard” at work in conventional sexuality means that this change does not apply to men. Yet the strictures of abstract feminist theory dampen down when faced with men’s own “horror of ageing”. She records the importance for elderly men not of aggressive sexual virility but of “intimacy and touch in their experience with wives or partners.”(Page 89)
Are women trapped in the beauty culture dictated by masculine desire? Gender as a construction can always be, as Judith Butler suggested, destabilised, and redefined (Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. 1990). Known a decade ago as a defender of the legitimacy of heterosexual relations against separatist feminism, Segal describes how she found, after her relationship with a younger man ended in her fifties, “Unexpected erotic pleasure in a relationship with a woman.”(Page 117)
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Segal cites Peter Osborne to develop a variegated perspective on time which helps her to come to terms with this feature of her life. Personal identity is something that endures in ageing, but its relationship to the past, the present and the future is not to be fixed by the chronology of clocks. The past remains there in the eternal present. There are always yearnings for roads not taken. In the now there are moments throughout our lives that draw us to the future. In discussing psychoanalysis (Freud and Lacan) and psychology she observes that the unconscious itself is “timeless”. One could equally say that grace and charm (and their contraries) are things that may endure over a life-time.
Ageing in Literature.
Segal refers to the paintings of Lucien Freud and David Hockney to portray the sight of ageing. But perhaps it’s when she harvests literature, such the works of Philip Roth and John Updike, that she makes the most incisive impression. This is literary direction is a fruitful avenue, whether or not it directly speaks for personal experience. Roth’s I Married a Communist (1998- (which she does not cite) features one character in its wider plot, whose commitment, worn over the years gradually boils down, as he gets old, to a simple sense of being a “good person”.
The importance of life-long goodness is apparent in Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple (1869), the subject of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot (2009) to which Segal refers. In that short story the maid Félicité devotes herself to others – her mistress, her employer’s children, her nephew and an old man with cancer. Dying, in one of the most moving scenes in the history of literature, she imagines god or the Holy Spirit as her parrot, Loulou. In homage to human unselfish devotion Michel Houellebecq (Les Particules élémentaires 1998) describes such beings, who have worked all their lives, uniquely for love and out of devotion for others. In practice, Houellebecq noted, these people have generally been women.
The elderly can also be wrong-footed in their attachments. De Beauvoir’s La Cérémonie des Adieux (1981) is marked by the author’s annoyance at Sartre’s senescent years. Under the influence of Benny Lévy her close companion was enthused by the Cultural Revolution. By the late seventies he turned like a weathervane – as his self-appointed secretary veered to the right and the Talmud – to endorsing the anti-Communism of the nouveaux philosophes. Beauvoir could hardly contain her rage, as Sartre appeared to lose his sense of self and judgement. A besotted dupe Sartre is as pitiable as Balzac’s Père Goriot. He sacrifices all his wealth for his daughters, who are ashamed of him, and is left to die in wretched isolation.
Other novelists enter Out of Time to mark out lines of experience. Penelope Lively’s reflections on generational difference impress her. Lively also indicated in Treasures of Time (1979) the presence of the monumental past in the now. As her partner, Jack Lively, might have indicated, from his work on Joseph de Maistre, for many individuals (whatever the reality of these impressions), there are deep traces of the people who have gone before in the world of today.
Alain Badiou: I was wrong, innit?
“The Greatest Philosopher since Plato and St Ignatius of Loyola”, as Terry Eagleton calls him, Alain Badiou, a dapper gent, wears his 132 years well.
The Tendance interviewed him in Les Deux Magots.
“Cher Maître, is it ‘true’ that your latest book includes a 300 page self-criticism of your Maoist years and your support for the Khmer Rouge?”
“Indeed! Let me sum up my truth procedure: Regretter et se repentir, on peut toujours le faire. C’est très facile! One can always regret and repent, it’s always easy! As Spinoza said, it’s always a bit too easy. “
The great man paused, slipping into the fluent English he learnt as a Dalston pot-boy.
“I was wrong, innit?”
Dipping a chip into a bowl of mayonnaise he continued,
“When Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution, it was a Communist Invariant. But now only 40 years later we have to admit that there were some errors. Humiliating professors, for example and not performing any of my operas. I remain, however fidèle to the Event. There have been dramas and heart-wrenching and doubts, but I have never again abandoned a love.”
“And Pot Pot”
“He was a bit of a lad, hein?”
“But times move on. L’Organisation Politique is set in new directions. After taking absolution I plan to retire to a Trappist Monastery in Belgium to brew an excellent beer. Here try some”.
Diagram of Badiou Truth Procedure.
Stuart Hall: 3 February 1932 – 10 February 2014.
“One of Britain’s leading intellectuals, the sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall, has died age 82.
Known as the “godfather of multiculturalism”, Hall had a huge influence on academic, political and cultural debates for over six decades.” Guardian.
Stuart Hall’s legacy is significant and enduring. In the field of cultural studies, he played a big role in creating, in work on race, gender, ideology, post-colonialist studies, and sub-cultures. The opening up the Anglophone academy to Continental theorists, such as Althusser, Gramsci and Foucault, owes a debt to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, which Hall directed from 1968 to 1979. More controversially his analysis of the Great Right Moving Right period and Thatcherism ended in Marxism Today’s Manifesto for New Times (1989).
Stuart Hall, in 1956, was a founding figure in the ‘First’ British New Left. Formed in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French attack on Suez this was an attempt to create a democratic left opposed to both Stalinism and imperialism. It was determined not to repeat the dogmatic slogans of the post-war left. Hall’s A Sense of Classlessness (1958) addressed the new “consumer society” and its effects on working class communities.
As Editor of the original New Left Review (1960 1962) Hall introduced cultural topics into the journal, “to meet people as they are.” It challenged the traditional definitions of politics. The CCCS journal, Cultural Studies, described in the early 70s a “major historical realignment in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. In these conditions, cultural studies were based on the “recognition of cultural domination as a special area of politics.”
Hall’s work is perhaps best understood within this context. It was political and not limited to academic ambitions, still less was it an effort to import theoretical novelties in order to make an impression in the university world.
In this vein Hall and his colleagues paid special attention to Gramsci’s work on hegemony, politics and Althusser’s theory of ideology (On Ideology. Cultural Studies. 1977). Hall’s Marxism, which he interpreted in an open-minded fashion, inspired by the analysis of shifting classes and parties in 19th century Europe, drew on the spirit of the method outlined 1857 Introduction to the Grundrisse and not every sentence in Capital.
This approach, which could be called “eclectic” (in the sense of taking the best from theories) was very different from the “pure” Althussarians of the short-lived Theoretical Practice. It was some perplexity that the CCCS reacted to the assault on Theory in general and Althusser in particular by Hall’s comrade from the New Left, E.P. Thompson. Hall, like the author of the Making of the English Working Class had always underlined the importance of ordinary people’s experience and resistance.
Many on the left initially greeted Hall and his colleagues’ analysis of Thatcherism. It was considered, given his New Left background, and its focus on ideology, to be an attempt to break away from overly ‘economistic’ approaches to the rise of the New Right. As somebody at the CCCS during the period 1979-81 I personally found thee ideas extremely appealing. That they developed into the less accepted positions, of the magazine Marxism Today only gradually became apparent. When differences became clear there was a break up between those on the side of Marxism Today and those opposed. Some of the disagreements, on fundamentals about class, politics, and socialism, went deep. The debates were marked by strong feelings on both sides (see below).
Throughout Stuart Hall remained greatly respected on the left, and more widely in Britain. Over the decades his reputation extended across the globe.
Those who knew him closely speak of his inspirational quality. We extend our condolences to all affected by his passing.
Update: referencing to Stuart Hall’s legacy today there is an important article by Ross Wolfe on the broader aspects of some of the theories associated with his name,
In this essay, I intend to argue that Marxism does contain the analytical tools necessary to theorize and deepen our understanding of class, gender, and race. I intend critically to examine, from the standpoint of Marxist theory, the arguments for race, gender, and class studies offered by some of their main proponents, assessing their strengths and limitations and demonstrating, in the process, that Marxism is theoretically and politically necessary if the study of class, gender, and race is to achieve more than the endless documentation of variations in their relative salience and combined effects in very specific contexts and experiences.
As long as the RGC perspective reduces class to just another form of oppression, and remains theoretically eclectic, so that intersectionality and interlockings are, in a way, “up for grabs,” meaning open to any and all theoretical interpretations, the nature of those metaphors of division and connection will remain ambiguous and open to conflicting and even contradictory interpretations. Marxism is not the only macro level theory that the RGC perspective could link to in order to explore the “basic structures of domination” but it is, I would argue, the most suitable for RGC’s emancipatory political objectives.
This was posted here in June last year published by the North Star.
Stuart Hall, Thatcherism, Marxism Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow.
“What matters is some sense of continuity through transformation – of political allegiances which won’t go away, of bedrock reference points – which does allow us to say something about the present conjuncture.”
Stuart Hall. Out of Apathy. Voices of the New Left Thirty Years on. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group. Verso. 1989.
Amongst all the debates that have come out of the latest splits on the British left perhaps some of the most important have been about looking again at the 1970s and 1980s left. Feminism and party forms have been to the fore. But more recently people, notably Jules Alford, Richard Seymour and the International Socialist Network, have begun to think about the way the left responded to the rise, and consolidation, of Thatcherism, and economic liberalism, during the same period. Today we tend to think of free-market policies as the fixed agenda of nearly all governments across the world, and in Britain, they seem the horizon of both the liberal-Conservative Coalition and Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership. But the 1980s saw heated debates about whether the Thatcher governments introduced something new into British politics, and if liberalism was a rational strategy for the country’s economy. Read the rest of this entry »
Breaking the chains of language.
Through the Language Glass. Guy Deutscher. William Heinemann. 2010.
In the 1970s the left became fascinated with the “linguistic turn” of structuralism and post-structuralism. At the bottom of the pile of ideas heaped up by Theory was the premise that Language (capitalised) could never directly grasp the Real. That just as the ‘signifier’ (words, symbols, icons) slipped for ever over the “signified” (meaning) there was never a point at which it could be “buttoned down” onto a stable reference in the world.
Realism, which from the late 1970s enjoyed a vogue amongst opponents of this ‘turn’ began modestly by Roy Enfield and Ted Benton, developed its own luxuriant and incomprehensible metaphysics of ‘generative mechanisms’ in the later writings of Roy Bhaskar. But many of us enjoyed the polemics between, say, Norman Geras and the half-forgotten Ernest Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, on the contrasting merits of a Marxist materialism based on the existence of external objects ‘post-Marxist’ discourse theory, which ‘brackets’ this.
This was harmless in itself. Nobody is ever going to settle for once and all the issue of the existence of the “real”. Perhaps Kant was right on this all along. But the idea of linguistic relativity lived on in what was once known as ‘post-Modernism’ and enjoys an after life in what is “post” the post. It came to imply that language truly is the limit of the world. Different languages are so incommensurable that they refer to a different “real” (bracketed again, this time for good).
Some famous distinctions behind this, the “prison house of language” approach, are taken (legitimately or not) from the ideas of the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand Saussure (1857 – 1913). Language is considered as a system in itself, Langue operates through Parole (speech). As a system we can consider it “diachronically” (historically) or – as it is present – “synchronically” – as a chain of signs and meanings, moving, or “slipping”, through difference, to make up Langue and our particular speech acts (Parole). Many non-linguists concluded from this abstract account, that at some point – though no follower of Saussure has ever provided the time and date – the elements of a language develop their own internal logic “outside” of history. Radical literary critics, post-structuralist philosophers, and social theorists, from the 1970s onwards, embraced Theory and littered their writings with Discourse.
Politics and Language.
It is important to consider the political uses these ideas have had. One conclusion was that language was the prime reality of social conflict. In The Culture of Complaint (1993) Robert Hughes poked fun at the postmodernist left. More seriously he observed that their relativism (reinforced by the ‘linguistic turn’) led to moral consequences. When Iran pronounced a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie “the more politically correct among them felt it was wrong to criticise a Muslim country, no matter what it did. At home in America, such folk knew it was the height of sexist impropriety to refer to a young female as a “girl” instead of a “woman” Abroad in Tehran, however, it was more or less OK for a cabal of regressive theocrats to insist on the chador, to cut off thieves’ hands and put out the eyes of offenders on TV, and to murder novelists as State policy”. (Page 99)
Stanley Fish’s response to these issues, that there is “no such thing as free speech” – Rushdie’s in the occurrence – outside of the social conventions governing language, illustrates moral bankruptcy that can result from linguistic relativism. Whatever the other merits, and faults of his approach, everything takes place within “discourse”, including the ‘silence’ that surrounds speech.
The silence has to do with the shape of any discourse. As Hobbes brilliantly points out again and again in his Leviathan, thought of a sequential and rational kind can only proceed when some set of stipulated definitions has been put at the beginning and established. Unless you have definitions of your topic, of your subject, demarcations of the field that you are about to explore, you cannot proceed because you have no direction. Hobbes also points out that such stipulative definitions are necessarily exclusionary. They exclude other possibilities, other possible ways of defining the field from which you might then have proceeded; since speech and reasoning can only occur when something is already in place and since the something that is already in place will be in place of something else that could have been in place, that something else which isn’t there is the silent background against which the discourse resounds.Here.
More recently we have seen supporters of Islam who want to have it both ways. Those defending the censorship of Jesus and Mo cartoons have also restored to Sausssure.
On the one hand an Islamist declared that language – synchronically – is indeed a system with great internal weight, in which contested meanings have social implications. Hence the need to ban offence against “oppressed” religions. On the other hand Muslim theology is ground on the idea that the classical Arabic of the Qur’an offers a privileged window onto reality. With echoes of Aristotle, they assert that these “signs” are genuine reflections of the order of the universe, bolstered by the unique, “divinely created”, morphology of this Semitic language. Contrary to the axiom that all truth can be translated, it is claimed that its verities cannot be fully rendered into other languages. Read the rest of this entry »