Whatever Happened to Modernism?

August 4th, 2010

John Sutherland reviews Gabriel Josipovici in the Literary Review:

"Widely as Josipovici has read, why has he not, one may ask, engaged at any length with critics who have defended unregenerate ‘Englishness’? Donald Davie, for example, who eloquently argued that the main strand in our national poetry is not Eliot, or Pound, but Thomas Hardy (a naif on whom Josipovici will not waste a single sentence). Or AS Byatt, a novelist and critic who leapfrogs over Modernism back to the sustaining realisms of George Eliot. The English, this is to protest, may not be benighted – or, as he likes to put it, shrouded in the ‘fog’ of their provincialism. They may merely be of a different mind from Gabriel Josipovici.

Josipovici takes his analysis back to the Reformation and Protestantism. Together with the concurrent rise of capitalism, Josipovici presents this as the emergence of individualism. It’s a variant of the Max Weber thesis familiar from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, in which Watt argues that the novel is the literary form that accommodated post-Reformation individualism. As individualism rose the ‘numinous’ disappeared – along with the Pope, the priests, feudalism, the divine right of kings, and leprosy. It meant freedom, but also the downside of freedom, loneliness. ‘When in the sixteenth-century’, Josipovici records, ‘religion takes its inward turn … the world becomes a colder space.’ And a smaller space.

Modernism, as Josipovici understands, doesn’t mend things – but it is honest about the unmendability. Modernism rejects the ‘bad faith’ of Romanticism and Realism – the two great movements on which traditional English literature and art rest. Modernism is cosmically ‘disenchanted’ (Josipovici borrows this key term from Max Weber). But it is not frightened to look, even if what it looks at is as paralysing as Medusa’s head. Josipovici takes as axiomatic Beckett’s proclamation that the Modernist writer has ‘nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’ It is despairing but brave – and, more importantly, true to the human condition."

I often find it wearying in arguments of this kind that culture is invariably described in terms that are prescriptive rather than descriptive, with the usual result that the prescription largely disregards its actual subject. As a riposte, I’m a little reminded of Camille Paglia’s equally prejudiced view that modernism sent literature into a cul de sac while film was allowed to emerge as the primary cultural form, or (once more) Tom Wolfe’s view that realism of the sort practised by Dickens and Thackeray had always been demeaned as vulgar populism before it became canonical, and that realism was as important to the development of the novel as electricity was to modern technology. All of these views tell you something about their originator, little about their subject.

There are probably two meaningful two ways to address Josipovici’s argument; firstly by a descriptive analysis of English literature and secondly by a descriptive analysis of modernism. To begin with modernism itself, one of my complaints about Josipovci’s description of modernism is that it’s so porous that it could easily be viewed as a description of European culture in general. The fact that this article attributes the rise of modernism to the Reformation, whereas Josipovici had previously pinned it to the French revolution, does little to suggest that a scalpel is being wielded rather than a cudgel. By contrast, JG Ballard described English modernism as a thin veneer of techniques like stream of consciousness over a narrative form that was quite recognisably a development of the nineteenth century novel. Look behind Lawrence and Hardy and Eliot can be seen. Looking behind Woolf and Forster reveals Austen and James. With the collapse of Freudian ideas, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that the novel might at least partially revert to a pre-modernist form; in any case, Ballard saw surrealism rather than modernism as the principal movement of the twentieth century.

To proceed onto the former, Josipovici is correct to note that the emergence of individualism and capitalism were central to the literature of the country that birthed the industrial revolution and the modern metropolis alike, but he seems to ignore the fact that this inevitably meant the rise of the urban middle class that Josipovici spends so much of his time sneering at. That class provided both the principal personae and the principal audience for literature from the eighteenth century onwards. As Lukacs put it, the novel is the bourgoeis epic. As such, it can hardly be surprising if England produced novels like Middlemarch while America produced Huckleberry Finn. The difficulty for the contemporary English novel is that where Eliot and Dickens envisaged society as an organic whole with each part interconnected, modern atomised society affords rather less scope for such a project. To take two obvious examples, Arnott’s He Kills Coppers and McEwan’s On Chesil Beach are both historical novels in much the same way as Felix Holt or Barnaby Rudge, but where Eliot and Dickens portray their characters as exemplars of those times, Arnott and McEwans portray their characters as aberrations, that are no more representative of those times than of any other. The conventions of the nineteenth century continue to be used, but seem vestigial rather than central to those books.

Update:A related critique:

"As such it expands a remark once dropped by the novelist Eva Figes, to the effect that ‘the horrors of her lifetime’ could not be accommodated by the English social-realist tradition… There are some very similar moments in A S Byatt’s Still Life (1985), which features an émigré Cambridge don named Raphael Faber, who rails against ’stories with character, against whining, against insularity, against verbal sluggishness’. Most of Faber’s family have been killed by the Nazis, and his response is a ‘difficult’ poem called ‘Lübeck Bells’ which contains no direct reference to the Holocaust. Faced with a Raphael Faber, Bradbury’s Katya Princip or even Josipovici, the specimen English novelist is entitled to protest that it isn’t his fault he wasn’t born with their disadvantages and that, in however general a way, a cultural tradition is only as good as the sum of its historical parts. There could never be an English Beckett, and most English novelists who have tried to follow the Beckett line have fallen flat on their face."

Progress and the novel

May 26th, 2010

This interview with David Shields raised some interesting points

"There are novels I like a lot, but they tend to be almost exclusively not very novelly novels, as Geoff Dyer calls them. I love J.M. Coetzee’s book Elizabeth Costello. Is it a novel? Not really…. I have a whole theory of it, that so many of the novelistic gestures are no longer congruent with what we understand life to be. Just to take the most obvious example, the glacial pace of most novels seems to me not to conform in any way to contemporary life. The ways in which plots are coherent seems to assume a kind of meaning or purpose to existence that we tend — at least, I tend — not to think life has. The conception of character, which is backformed by psychology, seems to be to not give credence to what we know about DNA and genetic and genomes. It’s as if our entire sense of character derives from how we were treated by our parents. Also, the whole sense of setting. So many novels have a strong sense of setting, place, and I think that, increasingly, where we live matters less and less to many people in Western democratized societies. The novelistic apparatus seems to me just antiquated. Inevitably, the books that get traction for me are books that just simply are not making novelistic gestures.

So much of what happens in contemporary literary culture is works which are essentially working off of a completely desiccated 19th-century model, essentially a Flaubertian model of realism. Flaubert was a great writer, Tolstoy was a great writer, Dickens was a great writer. But those books go back 100, 150 years. The idea that we endlessly praise writers now for mimicking their forebears from seven generations ago, to me, is preposterous. It would be as if you were praising a composer now who was composing the 1812 Overture, or a visual artist who was painting, in a straightforward way, a realistic portrait of George Bush. It’s just not what art does. Art, to me, like science, moves forward. Forms evolve, forms die, art advances."

I always rather dislike the parallel between artistic creation and technological progress, especially as it is often invoked by people who would be rather unlikely to profess any great belief in progress when meant in a social or political sense. In practice, art can indeed often repeat the same forms for decades or resurrect practices that had long been buried and forgotten (and in a post-Marxist and post-Freudian world it’s not difficult to argue that much of Victorian literature has acquired a greater modern relevance than much of modernism). The contemporaneity of art is the issue, not the advancement of it and applying arguments of artistic progress feels like a rather anachronistic worldview. The more worthwhile points relate to the changes in our conception of setting and time. It’s certainly true that we tend not to be rooted in particular places; as Shaffer put it in Equus we have very little idea of place. Our lives are very far from the stable and homogenous communities that gave birth to the Victorian novel. The point about glacial pace is also interesting, but the likes of Sebald and Coetzee write with far less awareness of the velocity of modern existence than someone like McEwan. Finally, the complaint about the patterned, allegorical nature of literature, how things are parables in George Eliot’s phrase, has a great deal of resonance for me. I’ve always liked the untidy aspects of literature to the neat and symmetrical. But surely, the looseness of life is precisely what the novel is good at and exactly what Bakhtin revered about it.

At the moment, I’m reading Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. In his introduction, Wolfe argues that realism in literature was akin to the discovery of electricity in engineering rather than simply another medium or device. The novel is in many ways a demonstration of that, replacing the taboo of sexuality in the Victorian novel with the modern taboos of race and class, showing that the old forms could be easily adapted to modernity. In many ways, I prefer Wolfe’s view to Shields.

The Sleep of Reason

April 14th, 2010

Stanley Fish summarises a dialogue between Habermas and a group of Catholic theologians:

"The counterpart of science in the political world is the modern Liberal state, which, Habermas reminds us, maintains "a neutrality . . . towards world views," that is, toward comprehensive visions (like religious visions) of what life means, where it is going and what we should be doing to help it get there. The problem is that a political structure that welcomes all worldviews into the marketplace of ideas, but holds itself aloof from any and all of them, will have no basis for judging the outcomes its procedures yield…The liberal citizen is taught that he is the possessor of rights and that the state exists to protect those rights, chief among which is his right to choose. The content of what he chooses — the direction in which he points his life — is a matter of indifference to the state which guarantees his right to go there just as it guarantees the corresponding rights of his neighbors ("different strokes for different folks"). Enlightenment rational morality, Habermas concludes, "is aimed at the insight of individuals, and does not foster any impulse toward solidarity, that is, toward morally guided collective action."

But Habermas does not want to embrace religion wholesale for he does not want to give up the "cognitive achievements of modernity" — which include tolerance, equality, individual freedom, freedom of thought, cosmopolitanism and scientific advancement — and risk surrendering to the fundamentalisms that, he says, willfully "cut themselves off" from everything that is good about the Enlightenment project. And so he proposes something less than a merger and more like an agreement between trading partners: "…the religious side must accept the authority of ‘natural’ reason as the fallible results of the institutionalized sciences and the basic principles of universalistic egalitarianism in law and morality.

As Norbert Brieskorn, one of Habermas’s interlocutors, points out, in Habermas’s bargain "reason addresses demands to the religious communities" but "there is no mention of demands from the opposite direction." Religion must give up the spheres of law, government, morality and knowledge; reason is asked only to be nice and not dismiss religion as irrational, retrograde and irrelevant. The "truths of faith" can be heard but only those portions of them that have secular counterparts can be admitted into the realm of public discourse. (It seems like a case of "separate but not equal.") Religion gets to be respected; reason gets to borrow the motivational resources it lacks on its own, resources it can then use to put a brake on its out-of-control spinning.

The result, as Michael Reder, another of Habermas’s interlocutors, observes, is a religion that has been "instrumentalized," made into something useful for a secular reason that still has no use for its teleological and eschatological underpinnings. Religions, explains Reder, are brought in only "to help to prevent or overcome social disruptions." Once they have performed this service they go back in their box and don’t trouble us with uncomfortable cosmic demands. "

This all rather reads like some of Sartre’s tortuous efforts to reconcile existentialism and communism and I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with the Catholic interlocutors. Habermas seems to forget that liberalism evolved precisely as a means of diluting (often conflicting) religious tendencies towards ‘morally guided collective action’ and quarantining them in the private sphere. The idea that one’s right to swing one’s fist ends at someone’s else’s face is not one that is easy to recognise in religious ethics, at least not in the ethics of the major monotheisms as they presently exist.

Hysterical Realism Redux

February 28th, 2010

Reality Hunger continues to be much discussed:

"The fiction vs non-fiction debate has become intense in recent years, and Shields cranks it up a notch… Every artistic movement is a bid to get closer to reality, he argues, and it’s in lyric essays, prose poems and collage novels that such impetus is to be found today… Early novels such as Robinson Crusoe passed themselves off as true. And at best the novel has always been ­hybrid, Shields says, with autobiography, history and topography part of the mix – hence his admiration for VS Naipaul and WG Sebald, and their "necessary post-modernist return to the roots of the novel as an essentially creole form". By contrast, the sort of novel that wins the Pulitzer or Booker has “never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself". Fabrication’s a bore. Characterisation a puerile puppet-show. Plot the altar on which interest is sacrificed – only when it’s absent are we given room to think… Shields’s other great buzzword is ­collage. He loves cut-ups, ­mosaics, found objects, chance creations, assemblages, splicings, remixes, mash-ups, homages; the author as "a creative editor, presenting selections by other artists in a new context and adding notes of his own". The novel is dead; long live the anti-novel, built from scraps: "I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man,” he says."

It’s not an unappealing vision. Thinking of the formalist division between fabula and syuzhet, between the totality of a work and its central fable, between authorial intent and readerly interpretation, I always preferred the untidy totality of a work rather than the excessively neat patterning of a work where the author has pinned down every single loose end. However, this counter-balancing argument also struck me as interesting:

"Over 45 years ago Susan Sontag wrote that redundancy—an experience of joblessness or irrelevance—was the chief affliction of modern life, a verdict that has yet to fall out of date. Insignificance and redundancy make special problems for a writer. Speaking generally, what a novelist aims to do is to convey or impose meaning, and meaning is what redundancy undermines—precisely why irrelevance is one of the natural and insoluble terrors of writing… It is perfectly fair—and what’s more, manifestly accurate—to say that social and cultural conditions are presently antithetical in lots of ways to creating literature that resonates with the times. A familiar way of putting it is to evoke a nefarious alliance of massively multiplied information sources and stimuli with a clustered and distracting mass culture, and the corresponding shrinkage of the average person’s attention span and willingness to isolate himself with a book. The novelist is caught in a double bind: in order to properly capture the feel of a kinetic, overloaded modern world she must pack more, and more varied, material into her work, but does so for an audience that has less and less inclination to engage with it. Alternatively, the novelist simplifies and straightens her work in order to win readers, but at the expense of representing the world as she truly perceives it to be (i.e. "selling out"). There is a concern that the novel is simply unable, structurally, to harmonize with an era where the written word has been so heavily marginalized by sound and image.

At the beginning of his first book, not a novel but an extended essay on the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft, Houellebecq set out his premises: "Life is painful and disappointing. It is useless, therefore, to write new realistic novels. We generally know where we stand in relation to reality and don’t care to know any more. Humanity, such as it is, inspires only an attenuated curiosity in us. All these prodigiously refined "notations," "situations," anecdotes… All they do, once a book has been set aside, is reinforce the slight revulsion that is already nourished by any one of our "real life" days."

Twilight of the Modern

February 19th, 2010

I wrote previously of how novels increasingly seem to be recastings of previous novels. This article caught my attention recently, presenting a similar thesis:

"Mannerism is the most commonly despised period in Western art history and, I think, the one that best befits creative culture today. We are mostly Mannerists now… As the Mannerists toiled in the twilight of the Renaissance, so do we in relation to the modern age — the word "modern" having been torn from its roots to signify things that loom behind us. The cinquecento artists would be intrigued by one of our musical genres, the mashup: new songs cobbled from scraps of old songs. (It shares an arch intricacy with their most popular form, the madrigal.) The movie "Avatar" strikes me as Mannerist through and through, generating terrific sensations of originality from a hodgepodge of worn-thin narrative and pictorial tropes. Ours is a dissolving, clever culture of mix and match. We are ready for Bronzino."


January 16th, 2010

Fantastic Journal has an interesting article on Terminal Five and the modern airport:

"The contemporary airport is probably the perfect architectural encapsulation of the strange complexities and iniquities of modern (western) life. They are glossy and expensive playgrounds offering endless diversions that never mask the ennui of actually being there. They are also highly policed, security-obsessed environments where the people in them are both flattered as consumers and treated as potential lunatics at the same time.

Airports are the quintessential contemporary building type, the symbolic target for terrorists and the rallying point for environmentalists. They are the manifestation of our desires and the focus of our fears. Spatially they are highly complex, a warren of labyrinthine corridors, border controls and security tape. Terminal 5 – like Foster’s Stanstead – strives to transcend the reality of endless queues and sock shops, harking back to the grand spaces of Victorian railway sheds, but the grim realities of immigration control always brings such flights of fancy back down to earth… Airplane travel today is a weird echo of 1950’s Service-with-a-Smile faux-luxury combined with the degrading intrusiveness of contemporary security arrangements. It’s hard to equate the optimism of vintage BAOC adverts with the humiliation of thousands of people being forced to take their toothpaste through security in a clear plastic bag."

In a lot of respects, I rather liked Terminal Five. Victorians looking at the Crystal Palace or St Pancras Station must have felt the way I did when looking at it. That sort of gleaming futurism is rather uncommon in Britain. With that said, my main recollection of it was the contrast between the gleaming high-tech character of the building and the rather generic anonymity of the building interior; the effect of the contrast is rather bathetic. Terminal Five is in short, the perfect representation of what Marc Auge called the ‘non-place:’

"Auge laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. For Auge, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have ‘no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.’"

Reality Hunger

November 21st, 2009

A glancing reference in a somewhat recursive Zadie Smith essay on essays, drew my attention to David Shield’s Reality Hunger:

"Standard operating procedure for fiction writers is to disavow any but the most insignificant link between the life lived and the novel written; similarly, for non-fiction writers, the main impulse is to insist upon the unassailable verisimilitude of the book they’ve produced. I’ve written three books of fiction and twice as many books of non-fiction, and whenever I’m discussing the supposed reality of a work of non-fiction I’ve written, I inevitably (and rapidly) move the conversation over to a contemplation of the ways in which I’ve fudged facts, exaggerated my emotions, cast myself as a symbolic figure, and invented freely. So, too, whenever anyone asks me about the origins of a work of fiction, I always forget to say, ‘I made it all up,’ and instead start talking about, for lack of a better term, real life. Why can’t I get my stories straight? Why do I so resist generic boundaries, and why am I so drawn to generic fissures? Why do I always seem to want to fold one form into another?

I have a very vivid memory of being assigned to read The Grapes of Wrath as a junior in high school and playing hooky from my homework to read Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72. Steinbeck’s humorlessness, sentimentality, and sledgehammer symbolism hardly had a chance against Hunter Thompson’s comedy, nihilism, and free association. I loved how easily Fear and Loathing mixed reportage or pseudo-reportage with glimmers of memoir.

I wanted to write a book whose loyalty wasn’t just to art but to life, my life. I wanted to be part of the process, part of the problem. For quite a while I wrote in a fairly traditional manner – two linear, realistic novels and dozens of conventionally plotted stories. I’m not a big believer in major epiphanies, especially those that occur in the shower, but I had one, about fifteen years ago, and it occurred in the shower: I had the sudden intuition that I could take various fragments of things, aborted stories, outtakes from novels, journal entries, litcrit and build a story out of them. I really had no idea what the story would be about; I just knew I needed to see what it would look like to set certain shards in juxtaposition to other shards. Now I have trouble working any other way, but I can’t emphasize enough how strange it felt at the time, working in this modal mode.

I’m hopelessly, futilely drawn toward representations of the real, knowing full well how invented such representations are. I’m bored by out-and-out fabrication, by myself and others; bored by invented plots and invented characters. I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. Everything else seems like so much gimmickry. For me, anyway, the fictional construct rarely takes you deeper into the material that you want to explore. Instead, it takes you deeper into the fictional construct, into the technology of narrative, of plot, of place, of scene, of characters. In most novels I read, the narrative completely overwhelms whatever it was the writer supposedly set out to explore in the first place.

I tend to agree with Smith that Shields partly refutes his own argument, by noting the fantastical character of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as opposed to the sober realism of The Grapes of Wrath; it can often be the case that the more a writer adheres to autobiography, the more fantastical the narration becomes. Witness Huysmans and DeQuincey as obvious exmaples. One might also note that the division Shields draws between etoliated artifice and the crudity of raw experience is surely a false one; as John Bayley’s The Uses of Division : Unity and Disharmony in Literature was at pains to point out, the most interesting work of many realist writers is often their more fragmented and inchoate. For me, writers like Lawrence, Eliot and Hardy are great precisely because of how untidy their novels often are. With all of that said though, in the end I probably sympathise more with Shields than with Smith. From Isherwood and Pessoa onwards to Coetzee and Sebald, writing that defies the division of reality and invention has become a hallmark of the age. Equally, it’s difficult not to notice that if our age has any genre it has obsessively explored, it would have to be biography, even those of people who are still living and have done apparently little to merit the attention. Put simply, we live in an age where experience is a heavily circumsribed or heavily mediated concept. I recall an interview with Slavoj Zizek on this subject:

"In my work, I place strong emphasis on what is usually referred to as the virtualisation or digitalisation of our environment… But still, 30 percent of us live in a digitalised universe that is artificially constructed, manipulated and no longer some natural or traditional one. At all levels of our life we seem to live more and more with the thing deprived of its substance… Throughout the entire twentieth century, I see a counter-tendency, for which my good philosopher friend Alain Badiou invented a nice name: ‘La passion du reel’, the passion of the real. That is to say, precisely because the universe in which we live is somehow a universe of dead conventions and artificiality, the only authentic real experience must be some extremely violent, shattering experience. And this we experience as a sense that now we are back in real life.

I think this may be what defined the twentieth century, which really began with the First World War. We all remember the war reports by Ernst Junger, in which he praises this eye-to-eye combat experience as the authentic one. Or at the level of sex, the archetypal film of the twentieth century would be Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses), where the idea again is that you become truly radical, and go to the end in a sexual encounter, when you practically torture each other to death. There must be extreme violence for that encounter to be authentic.

Another emblematic figure in this sense to me is the so-called ‘cutter’- a widespread pathological phenomenon in the USA. There are two million of them, mostly women, but also men, who cut themselves with razors. Why? It has nothing to do with masochism or suicide. It’s simply that they don’t feel real as persons and the idea is: it’s only through this pain and when you feel warm blood that you feel reconnected again. So I think that this tension is the background against which one should appreciate the effect of the act."

Modern Spenglerism

August 31st, 2009

As I read this article, I realised that it reminded me of a certain contemporary figure:

"The West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future… The sum of these fears – or their apotheosis – is the belief that civilisation is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress… But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again – a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion.

Few thinkers savaged Europe’s faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called ‘progress’ was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: "I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity." Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics."

If the current recession can be described as a counterpart to the great depression, it’s hardly surprising that writers might respond to the times in a similar fashion to what is described above, which was why I found myself wondering whether John Gray might not count as our modern Spengler. Gray is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the spirit of our times; a self-styled contrarian whose arguments actually reflect an essentially mainstream view. Having had to live under a ‘third way’ government without any idea of political narrative and whose pragmatic approach to government resulted in little more than inconsistency, I do grow slightly weary of Gray tilting at windmills of Enlightenment political thinking. There were a couple of reasons why Gray came to mind when I read the above piece, of which this and this were the first:

"It is not surprising that Enlightenment thinking has become fashionable again: in uncertain times, people turn to the security promised by faith… liberal values are certainly at risk, but it is silly to look to the Enlightenment to safeguard them. It was a hugely complex movement, and some of its most influential thinkers were enemies of liberalism. Karl Marx allowed liberal values only a transitional role in human development, while Auguste Comte, founder of the influential positivist movement, rejected ideals of toleration and equality. Yet this was not simply a battle of ideas. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the anti-liberal strand of Enlightenment thinking gave birth to the ’scientific racism’ that would be adopted by the Nazis. This ideology can be traced back to Kant’s lectures on anthropology, published in 1798, in which he maintained, for instance, that Africans are inherently disposed to slavery. As an intellectual movement, the Enlightenment has always had a distinctly seamy side. In its political incarnation, it was one of the factors that shaped modern-day terror. Right-thinking French philosophes campaigned for the prohibition of torture, but their ideas also gave birth to the Jacobin Terror that followed the French revolution…

Much of the state terror in the past century was secular, not religious. Lenin and Mao were avowed disciples of an Enlightenment ideology. Some will object that they misapplied this. And yet it is a feature of the fundamentalist mindset to posit a pristine faith, innocent of complicity in any crime its practitioners have ever committed, and capable – if only it is implemented in its pure, unsullied form – of eradicating practically any evil. This is pretty much what is asserted by those who claim that the solution to the world’s problems is mass conversion to "Enlightenment values"."

There’s a great deal I agree with here, such as insistence that communism as an ideology was responsible for the crimes committed under it rather than any abuse of the political theory by its practitioners. Nonetheless, there are two particular aspects of the above that particularly irk me. Firstly, while Gray is certainly correct that communist denialists tend to exculpate their ideology by claiming the cultural revolution as an aberration, he comes quite close to some of Marx’s tactics in that last paragraph, suggesting that objections to his ideas represent a covert proof of them. Popper disdained that sort of circular argument in Freud and Marx and would doubtless take a similar view of the above. Even without that, it seems a little disingenuous to cite communism as an Enlightenment project without mentioning that the ideas of pluralism and democracy that opposed it had the same pedigree; those ideas being the ones that provide the normative basis against which Gray himself can critique Kant for racism or Comte for conservatism. More pressingly, it’s doubtful that the opponents that Gray is addressing here really exist in any meaningful form; believers in a Marxist or Hegelian conception of progress as a form of historical inevitability must be few and far between. His references to the Euston Manifesto ignore the problem that its signatories were a relatively small group without substantial influence; had they or like-minded individuals not existed recent historical events would have run exactly the same course. For all their references to democracy, it somewhat strains credulity to take the view that the political elites that instigated the Iraq war were especially motivated by ideals of progress rather than by religious faith or simple expediency. Certainly, if that was the case it left precious little trace on the domestic policies of either the British or American governments of that time.

While I tend to agree with Gray on the role of politics as a means of facilitating the co-existence of different groups and ideologies, the denial of any meliorist trend in politics is an essentially conservative or Hobbesian worldview. Susan Nieman’s recent articles make this point rather well:

"It is this, the profound demoralisation of the left, that spurs Neiman on in Moral Clarity. ‘The left is where I come from’, she says, ‘but it has been so remiss in the last couple of decades.’ Realism and pragmatism, the watchwords of a left bereft of even a residual utopianism, have been no substitute for a moral vision, she continues. Rather, such realism merely left the way open for politicians of the right, like George W Bush, to seize the moral high ground. So while the then president was wittering on about ‘evil’, and by default ‘good’, the left was left with little more than hard-headed nihilism. As Neiman describes it, value-less and hopeless, the pragmatic left, content to unmask the workings of power, is content also to leave the world as it is. The left has come to see all idealism as tainted, and all talk of morality as an axis-of-evil-style charade. The left now appears to share the outlook of that arch-conservative Edmund Burke: ‘What kind of man would expect heaven and earth to bend to grand theories?’

As the figure whose work not only went beyond the static dualisms of German idealism, but sustained the left for many years, Karl Marx cannot but haunt a reading of a work like Moral Clarity. For he, above all others – including Hegel – sought to go beyond the ossified opposition of the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, by grasping reality as a process in which subject and object form a contradictory unity, in which the ‘ought’ inheres within the ‘is’. Where a dualistic perspective might render the conflicts of society as wrongs to be judged as such, Marx was able to grasp them as wrongs produced – and produced not by the labour of the concept, as with Hegel, but by the labour that produces not just use-values, but exchange value, too; that is, alienating labour, wage-labour. There was not simply a moral reason, there was also an actual reason, an actual possibility to change the world as it is.

In a sense, then, the collapse of not just the ideals but of the political movement underpinning Marx’s revolutionary perspective does seem to return us to a dualistic moment, a historical point in which the social world confronts a solitary individual. So does the dualism of Moral Clarity reflect the contemporary impasse? Neiman is resolute. The direction that Marx and Hegel took, she says, showed an impatience, a desire to force the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ to coincide. That Hegel’s absolute idealism led him rightwards, to make the ‘real rational’, and Marx’s materialism leftwards, is neither here nor there. Both sought to identify how things ought to be with necessity, whether historical or economic. Kantian idealism, however, is, as Neiman tells me, a grown-up idealism. It resists the violent utopianism of youth, but also the cynicism of youthful dreams disappointed. ‘You live with the dualism’, she says. ‘You always keep your eye on your actions and how you want the world to be. But you also need to be bound to a recognition, especially in political life, to the way that things are.’ … Neiman at her Kantian best does not diminish but rather defends the autonomy of the moral subject. It is all about growing up for Neiman, about teaching people to use their judgment, their reason: ‘The Enlightenment gave reason pride of place, not because it expected absolute certainty, but because it sought a way to live without it.’"


August 9th, 2009

I was struck by this article on the rise of non-places:

"Auge laments the rise of spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere. For Auge, these spaces seem to signal the end of borders, of locality, and of the old sense of identity rooted in place and time. The non-places are devoid of relationships and have ‘no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle.’ … the phrase ‘non-places’ is creeping into the lexicon, because it taps directly into a fear we all have: That the world is becoming ever more homogenized and globalized, and soon it won’t matter where we go because the world will consist only of non-places. As Paul Theroux wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, the ‘contraction of space on a shrinking planet suggests a time, not far off, when there will be no remoteness: nowhere to become lost, nothing to be discovered, no escape, no palpable concept of distance, no peculiarity of dress—frightening thoughts for a traveler.’"

The non-place is a familiar concept; transient spaces designed in a mass-produced manner. Airports, hotels, business parks, motorways, service stations all fit into the model. One of the reasons why I think Ballard was the greatest English author of the second half of the twentieth century is that he adapted the emphasis English novels had tended to put on place for an age where the idea of place was being erased. It’s also interesting to note that the provincialism of the Victorian novel emerged precisely at the point that rail transport was beginning the erosion of regional difference. I was thinking of this concept, when I came across this anti-tourism manifesto:

"As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet. Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid. The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

  • The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.
  • The anti-tourist eschews comfort.
  • The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.
  • The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.
  • The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is vanity and a desire to brag.
  • The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.
  • The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.
  • The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.
  • The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.
  • The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.
  • The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.
  • The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.


I sometimes think tourism is an attempt to recapture the idea of a sense of place. Cities like Venice have long been described as ossified mausoleums (incidentally, aspects of the above read rather like the Futurist Manifesto, which in itself was prompted by Italy having become a large museum for tourism) but in having been trapped like a fly in amber they retain the sense of individual difference that would otherwise have been lost. The issue is not the banality of the familiar, it is the anomie of the non-place.

Invisible Cities

June 22nd, 2009

A list of real fantasy cities, with China Mieville’s choice being London:

"Because it is the triumph of a lack of planning –both for good and bad. It’s chaos –and whether you say that with a gasp of despair or glee or both is up to you. Whereas Paris (certainly in the centre) is the success of a single overarching monomaniacal topographic vision, London is a chaotic patchwork of history, architecture, style, as disorganised as any dream, and like any dream possessing an underlying logic, but one that we can’t quite make sense of, though we know it’s there. A shoved-together city cobbled from centuries of distinct aesthetics disrespectfully clotted in a magnificent triumph of architectural philistinism. A city of jingoist sculptures, concrete caryatids, ugly ugly ugly financial bombast, reconfiguration. A city full of parks and gardens, which have always been magic places, one of the greenest cities in the world, though it’s a very dirty shade of green –and what sort of grimy dryads does London throw up? You tell me."

Mieville’s choice is rather different to the other writers. Venice or Prague seem exotic because of their perceived exoticism, London because of its emphatic mundanity. After all, British science fiction tends to prefer to see forests in wardrobes or timeships in Police boxes. With that said, I’ve have chosen Oxford. From Hardy’s Sepulchre College and Trollope’s Lazarus College to Sayer’s Shrewsbury College and Pullman’s Jordan College, it’s a city that already exists as a myriad of Calvino’s invisible cities.

Update: although Moorcock picks Marrakesh as his city, this piece on London is in a rather similar vein:

"There aren’t many pictures of my childhood London. To get a glimpse of the world I grew up in, I have to give microscopic attention to the backgrounds of English movies made between 1945 and 1955 in the hope of seeing the ruined South Bank in Hue and Cry or the remains of Wapping in Night and the City… London was different up to 1940. In illustrated books, it often seems tranquil and quaint, full of lost churchyards and hidden courts. There were always places where the traffic noise dropped away and you could enjoy a bit of peace. That was before the firestorms blasted the East End into blazing fragments of people and buildings, when so much of that quaint tranquillity became heaps of rubble, tottering walls, fire-blasted windows, cut-aways of people’s private lives, their bathrooms and bedrooms, everything they’d valued, exposed to the hasty curiosity of the survivors.

Then there were the places where London was simply not – a few irregular mounds of grass and weeds with rusted wire sticking through concrete, like broken bones, exposed nerves. These parts of London could very easily be identified because almost nothing survived except the larger 17th- and 18th-century buildings such as Tower Hill, the Customs House, the Mint, the Monument. And, of course, St Paul’s, her dome visible from the river as you came up out of the delicious stink of fresh fish from Billingsgate Market, a snap of cold in the bright morning, and walked between high banks of overgrown debris along lanes trodden to the contour of the land. You had made those paths by choosing the simplest routes through the ruins. Grass and moss and blazing purple fireweed grew in every chink. Sun glinted on Portland stone, and to the west, foggy sunsets turned the river crimson. You never got lost. The surviving buildings themselves were the landmarks you used, like your 18th-century ancestors, to navigate from one place to the other.

Slowly the big brutal blocks of concrete and fake Le Corbusier flats began to dwarf St Paul’s and the Royal Mint, and the familiar trails disappeared, along with the alleys and yards, the little coffee shops and printers. Like an animal driven from its natural environment, I’d turn a corner and run into a newly made cliff. The docks disappeared with astonishing speed. One day the ships were shadows honking out of the smog and the next they were gone."