Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula Le Guin - An Unstoppable Predilection For Alternatives

'And what is critical consciousness', asks Edward Said at the conclusion of his classic essay 'Travelling Theory' (1982), 'if not an unstoppable  predilection for alternatives?'  For Said, critical consciousness - as he found  it exemplified in figures as various as Vico,  Swift, Auerbach, Foucault and Adorno - was characterised chiefly by an openness to the transitory, the Other, the fugitive, the evanescent in human experience and human practice.  Criticism should be restless, dialectical, reflexive, forever capable not only of reinterpreting the world but also itself, of biting the hand that feeds it, of historicising or displacing its own most cherished positions or nostrums.

This 'worldliness' was also what attracted Said to some of the literary writers of whom he was most fond - Conrad or Lampedusa.  Such a worldliness was also a characteristic of the great American writer Ursula K Le Guin, whose death has been announced today.  Too often pigeonholed as a 'science-fiction' writer, Le Guin has used various genres as fictional laboratories for the dialectical testing of versions of Utopia, over a very long and illustrious career.   Would we had more  like her.

Here is an essay she wrote for a new edition of  Thomas  More's Utopia published by Verso in 2017:

A War Without End by Ursula K. Le Guin

Though even Harold Bloom has generously praised  Le Guin as a great stylist and innovator, it has surely been Fredric Jameson, of the major critics now working, who has given the most attention to Le Guin.  His omniverous and affirmative Marxism was open to Le Guin from early in her career.  Here is an essay of his from 1975:

World Reduction in Le Guin


Sunday, 21 January 2018

Bah Humbug - The New Spirit of Resistance in 2018

My last blogposting was a minor 'funny story' about Adorno (always a tricky genre), and an ecstatic announcement about my readership numbers - back in early November.  And then, typically, I posted nothing for the next two months.  No good excuses: Christmas, and then I was travelling to  Paris and Berlin.  And since my return to Dublin: work work work.

But such silence can't go on forever.  Having been reading Eric Hazan again, as I looked for the ghosts of past greatness on the rue d'Ulm and meditated on the Metro, I plan a piece on him and his writing.  But for now, here is some decently mordant reading, borrowed from the Verso website, for the bad new year!


Some economic gloom:

Are We Heading for Another Economic Crash?

Wandering the two greatest cities in Europe, I was reading Lenin's What Is To Be Done?, his early Chernyshevskian critique of putatively 'non-political' left movements and thinkers in late-nineteenth century Russia.  In the same book, he also works up his idea of a disciplined, centralised revolutionary party.  Alas, no matter the power or relevance of his ideas, they were also vulnerable to appropriation by the enemy:

The Rise of the Leninist Right

And at least one reason to be cheerful: Verso reissue Luc Boltanski's and Eve Chiapello's bracing and powerful manifesto and thesis for a radical and critical sociology of the bad new days, The New Spirit of Capitalism.   Here is Boltanski, explaining the book's project:

Friday, 10 November 2017

Reflections from Damaged Life - Writing My Free Time

Adorno has a short essay entitled 'Free Time'.  It is one of the places where the grumpy old mandarin shows that he perhaps has a sense of humour.  He  notes how when the 'giants of the culture industries' are interviewed in the weekly magazines, their interviewers never fail to ask them about their 'hobbies'. 

Adorno is horrified at the idea of a hobby.  He points out that the idea of 'free time' or 'leisure time', is a confection of industries which seek to market our private or even intimate lives.  I like to imagine him being interviewed by a callow journalist, who eventually enquires: 'And so, Herr Doktor Professor Adorno, what do you do with your free time?  Have you any hobbies?'  Teddy recoils from the question, almost  like Lady Bracknell reacting to Ernest Worthing's admission that he'd been born in a handbag.  'Hobbies??????'  And he explains, in exasperation no doubt, that he regards the whole notion of 'free time' and 'hobbies' as an expression of the capitalist reification of domestic and personal life, and that he does what he does with the utmost seriousness.

I am not sure if I always manage to write in my 'free time' quite so seriously on this blog, but I hope that the material I put up on it is of some interest some of the time, and so that it justifies its title.  I am delighted to report that just in the last few minutes the blog has recorded its 30,000th pageview.  Brilliant news!

Onward and upward!


Thursday, 9 November 2017

Resurrecting the Revolution - In the Spirit of Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai

November 7 brought the centenary of the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg in 1917, when the Bolsheviki decisively seized power in Russia, nine months after the February Revolution and after a long hot summer of Menshevik ambivalence and war-making  and attempted reactionary counter-revolution.  Verso marked the anniversary with a battery of excellent and interesting  material on its website, from a tremendous roster of writers: Alain Badiou, Sheila Rowbotham, Tariq Ali, China Mieville, Slavoj Zizek, Rochelle Ruthchild.  Here it is!

China Miéville on the Russian Revolution

And four articles from Jacobin -

China Mieville - an excerpt from his October:

Alexander Rabinowitch on Bolshevik strategy:

How the Bolsheviks Won

Ronald Suny on the revolution in Baku: 

And Kevin Murphy on the radicalization of the Petrograd Soviet:

All power to the Soviets!


Monday, 6 November 2017

That Letter - the Balfour Declaration

On November 2, 1917, Arthur James Balfour, Britain's Foreign Secretary,  wrote the letter below to Baron Rothschild, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Britain:

This is the notorious 'Balfour Declaration', which is one of the crucial documents and statements in the history of Palestine, and which represented a very significant victory in the story of Zionism.

Zionism is best understood as an ethnic nationalism, much like the ethno-nationalisms that were taking form in eastern Europe in the middle- to late-nineteenth century at the moment of Zionism's  birth.  Unlike the nationalisms of Russia,  Poland, Germany, Zionism was not in possession of, or  anywhere near, a recognisable  national territory.  One possible location for a 'national territory' was Palestine, home then to a small but ancient Jewish community and long yearned-for in the Judaic tradition.   Palestine at this time was an Ottoman province, but Britain now committed itself to facilitating a 'Jewish national home' in anticipation of the collapse of the Turkish empire.

Zionism, a century ago, and in our own time, has always offered itself as an ally or instrument of imperialisms.  In the era of the Balfour Declaration, Zionists had already sought aid from Tsarist Russia, from France and Britain, and even (paradoxically) from the Ottoman Porte.  In each case, the movement sold itself as useful to those great powers: Zionism would bring its  financial resources to the bankrupt and tottering  Turkish empire,  in return for land purchases in Palestine; it would 'solve' Russia's 'Jewish problem' and its revolutionary instability, by removing or luring away the Jewish radicals who contributed so much to Russian dissent; it would set up a bastion of Western values in the Middle  East, and guard Britain's access to the Suez Canal, and the route to India.  Most recently, of course, Israel has allied itself to the last remaining global power, the United States (especially since the 1967 war), and taken an eager part in America's proxy struggles with the USSR and then its real  struggles with Arab nationalism since.

We can see the future of Zionist exclusivism already in the Declaration - its reference to the  'non-Jewish communities in Palestine' adopts the Zionist terminology of 'non-Jews' to discuss in negative terms all other potential national identities or national communities in the territory.  The seemingly anodyne nature of the reference is also undercut by observing only their 'civil and religious rights'.  No Palestinian Arab political sovereignty is even imaginable, let alone desirable, in this vision.  The discourse of what Baruch Kimmerling called 'politicide' is already in place.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

Here are some essays on the Declaration and its centenary, taken first from Jacobin - Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies at Columbia:

After Balfour

Now from Mondoweiss: Jonathan Cook


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Whither the intellectuals? A Critique of Pierre Bourdieu

I've been reading about intellectuals for all of my adult  lifetime.  In Ireland, to be called 'an intellectual' is a quasi-insult: composed half of grudging admiration,  and half of acidic revulsion at someone who is interested not only in the world but in thinking of it conceptually.  Irish literature and cultural life have mostly privileged the empirical and the expressive.   Two of the greatest Irish writers wrote devastating critiques of intellectual pretension in the eighteenth century: Burke's great counterblast at the French Revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) argues that France's ailments come from its governance being taken over by the philosophes or their bastard brood, martyrs to abstraction who prefer to plan for a fantasy-rationalist polity than assist a real organic people or serve a venerable traditional authority whose appeal is inscribed in the hearts of human beings.  Swift, in Gulliver's Travels (1726), portrayed the 'projectors' of Laputa as desiccated, inhuman, and narcissistic, dwelling on an airborne island whose cloud-like condition reflects their vacuous inability to connect their ideas to reality or put them into practical usage.

The paradox, of course, was that Swift and Burke were themselves intellectuals: steeped in learning, supremely gifted writers,  capable of the most subtle thought,  and in command - whether by virtue of the Deanship of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, or membership of Parliament in London - of prominent platforms ideally suited to the dissemination of their ideas.  

My own reading was determined in particular, by my encounter - begun around 1988 and still underway - with the work of Edward Said.  Said was  most famous as, on the one hand, a brilliant literary critic, and on the other  hand, a powerful advocate for Palestinian freedom.  But his real concern, in many ways, which straddles these two areas, was the status, function, and moral-political responsibility of the intellectual.  For  all that  his most famous book, Orientalism (40 years old next year) was an erudite reading and critique of the philological, political, artistic, historical representation by the West of the Arab Middle  East since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798, one of the book's underlying themes is the intellectual.   The movement of the book goes in two directions.   From Sylvestre de Sacy to Bernard Lewis, there is an accumulating and devastating reading of the established Western intellectuals and their discourse about 'the Orient', which is lambasted for the inhumanity hidden behind or secreted within its supposed humanism.  This is a long and trenchant naming of names, a scorching description of the trahison des clercs.  But within and parallel to, and because of this reading, there is the gathering coming-to-consciousness of the radical Palestinian intellectual.  Said quotes Gramsci, in the Introduction to Orientalism: 'The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is "knowing thyself" as a product of the historical process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.  Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory'.  When Said then moves on to analyze the 'nexus of knowledge and power creating the "Oriental" and in a sense obliterating him as a human being', we realise that the whole book constitutes not only his effort to encourage his readers to 'unlearn the inherent dominative mode', but also his  own trajectory through the same process.

But Said's finest book is not Orientalism, not for me, anyway.  It is The World, the Text, and the Critic (1983), an extraordinary collection of the essays he was publishing in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.  It is  not an exaggeration to say that this book stands, along with a few other lonely beacons such as Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed or Richard Ohmann's English in America, or Noam Chomsky's American Power and the New Mandarins, as a manual for academic-intellectual insurrection.  The  book's theme is intellectuals, but this time explicitly, and while it contains superb readings of writers as different as Conrad, Hopkins,  Mann and Massignon, the real undertow is the fate of putatively 'radical' criticism once it is institutionalised.  So we get tremendous manifestos for 'worldly' or 'secular' criticism or 'critical consciousness', or angry but insightful threnodies for the decline and emasculation of radical theory that seems to accompany its supposed refinement,  elaboration and adaptation into method.  Most powerfully, Lukács's great theory of reification-and-totality is followed from its beginnings on the streets of Budapest in 1919, as part of the weaponry of revolution, to its sad declension into a technical device in classrooms at the Sorbonne and at Cambridge in the hands of Lucien Goldmann, and even Raymond Williams - the latter a great critic Said  knew and admired.

With and through Said, I encountered a much wider literature on intellectuals - work by Chomsky, Edward Shils, Alvin Gouldner, Regis Debray, Julien Benda, Karl  Mannheim, Foucault, and Gramsci himself.  At the end of his life, Said's most frequent intellectual model was that of Adorno,  and I've often thought that the move from Lukács as rebellious exemplar to Adorno as resigned but recalcitrant is one of the major motifs of Said's intellectual career.   Final essays such as 'Travelling Theory Reconsidered', and the magnificent 'On Lost Causes' (both collected in Reflections on Exile) show how Minima Moralia gradually overtook History and Class Consciousness as the great motor of Said's project.

In the last decade of his life, Said, who had been one of the  most important American respondents to the new French thought of the 1960s and 1970s, became overtly and bluntly scornful of the pretensions of 'Theory'.  But one figure in the French pantheon with whom he struck up a personal friendship, if not an intellectual alliance, was the great sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.  Bourdieu wrote prodigious books and studies of various elements in French life - about education, maybe in particular,  but also about other strata or formations such as the civil service elite and the academic intellectuals.  He also wrote magnificent studies of the working poor of France - La misere du monde - and a wonderful sociology of cultural taste: Distinction, one of the most ruthless critiques of Kantian aesthetics to be found anywhere.   Bourdieu, in fact, wrote a great deal about culture high and low, and elements in his sociology of the cultural field, and of the positions and position-takings of activists in the field of culture bear comparison to Said's ideas of the worldly and institutional 'affiliations' which permit texts - even the most abstruse literary texts - to maintain their persistence as texts.  Bourdieu's arguments are in reality much more concrete and developed than Said's in this respect, and could be used to concretise and buttress Said's more Gramscian musings.

Bourdieu's sociology of French academics, translated as Homo Academicus, makes for salutary reading for those of us who grew up in the 1980s and were trained to revere and read the likes of Derrida, Lacan, and  Foucault, as the giants of French thought.  For Bourdieu showed us briskly that there was and  is a deep gulf between the intellectual prestige of 'French thought' as mediated through the Comparative Literature and  English Departments of great American universities, and the status accorded to those thinkers in their home country.  Derrida and Foucault, though admired and read, never attained the status in France that they did in America,  and other major French philosophers, with huge reputations in the Anglosphere - Deleuze is the obvious example here - were left in respectable  but hardly glamorous academic positions in the middle ranks  of the French scene.

Bourdieu was not a Marxist, though he was unquestionably a man of the Left.  He was bracingly sceptical of the Anglo obsession with French thinkers, even as he became lionised as one himself.   Here is a reading of him, posted on the superb new site set up by Jacobin.   Catalyst is a forum for more extended or scholarly treatments than what one normally sees in Jacobin - high as the standard of writing there  is.  For some of Catalyst's content, one must subscribe.   But this essay by Dylan Riley, professor of sociology at Berkeley, is free:

Bourdieu’s Class Theory: The Academic as Revolutionary


Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Academic Freedom in the Shadow of Colonialism and Capital

At Trinity College Dublin, on September 11 and 12 last, a conference was held on the situation of academic freedom and freedom of speech, in the context of the ever-increasing corporatisation and marketisation of higher education in Ireland, America, Britain and Europe.  Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions dissent on campus was taken as a test case.  It was organised under the auspices of the excellent and long-running M.Phil. in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict at TCD. though I had a hand in it too.  Here is the conference blog:

Conference: Freedom of speech and Higher Education: The case of ...

The conference was a great success, with superb papers delivered on many aspects of dissent in the neoliberal university, and two brilliant keynote talks by Dr Steven Salaita and Professor  Kathleen Lynch (UCD).

I have today published a report which I wrote up on the conference, with help from my comrades Ronit Lentin, David Landy and, most especially, Paola Rivetti.  It's on the excellent Mondoweiss website - warmest thanks to all at Mondoweiss, particularly Allison Deger and  Adam Horowitz.   Here it is:

Steven Salaita keynotes conference on academic freedom in Ireland