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


Conor

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


Conor

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 cliché, 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.




Conor

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.

Conor

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?


Conor

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