Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Non-Linear Borefare

This won't be very long, or good, but it's an attempt to say something rather than nothing in the face of a nagging sense, which is seemingly not exclusively mine, that much of what is happening around the Labour Party at the moment grinds one down to infuriated silence. In fact, what I want to talk about here are the strategies for producing that inability to speak, that incapacitation.

Perhaps, though, 'strategy' is to some extent a misnomer. It's even possible that 'part' of the 'strategy' is to draw attempts to name it as such, attempts which can then be dismissed as egregious conspiracy theorising. The Corbynistas dreaming up conspiracies behind their laptops; the hard left caught in the ecstasy of their paranoia; the Trots twitching about the CIA. Prefabbed tropes perhaps, and we can recognise them as such when they're framed as starkly as this, but there's a form of truth there - the expectation of some kind of simple, yet obscure, causality which would produce a tidy explanation is naive in several ways. Ideology wants nothing less than for you to go looking for the individuals pulling the strings.

Instead, the dispersal of causality, or even its disintegration, characterises our particular phase of late modernity. Think of Adam Curtis' metaparanoiac discussion of Vladislav Surkov's 'non-linear warfare', which 'import(s) ideas from conceptual art into politics'. Now, whether you think Curtis is an inspired, if unconventional, cultural and political thinker, or a better-paid version of the worst stoner you ever met at university - and the truth is probably a mixture of 'both' and 'somewhere in between' - this notion of non-linearity, of a politics-by-other-means-by-other-means which disarms its opponents through depriving them of reliable concepts with which to respond, seems useful to me. (I think here also of Sianne Ngai's brilliant writing on modern conceptual art's deployment of minor affects - stupidity, envy, irritation - to frustrate our capacity to respond aesthetically or experience interpretative catharsis. What Ngai identifies as the 'stuplime' in Stein, Beckett and various points since is perhaps the foremost political affect of the 2010s.)

Now, there's obviously some distance between Putin's deck of techniques - stretching the concept of plausible deniability into psychedelic territory, creating situations (i.e. the murder of Alexander Litvinenko) which make diplomatic response more or less impossible - and those possessed by the chancers who make up the PLP rebellion and who fill the column inches in the nominally 'left' media. Nevertheless, we're often talking about people who have bathed in the reflected glow of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - or, indeed, actually are Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - and it seems reasonable to assume that they've realised that because traditional spin no longer really washes, because everyone thinks everything is spin anyway, a new and more complex PR is required. Now, the aim is seemingly not to lie successfully, but to lie with such monumental transparency and such flamboyant non-conviction that the reality of those you oppose starts to unravel. Why, one wonders, hearing yet another political columnist insist that Jeremy Corbyn's diet, and his followers' alleged diets, renders him and them unsuitable for government, would anybody think this is true? 

These are rhetorics not of deceit but of cumulative irritation. Twitter gives us Corbyn supporters as 'Momentum millionaires' (I personally feel lucky just to be able to pay twenty five quid to vote in the leadership election), a constant denial that Corbyn's supporters live anywhere but Islington or Brighton (fair cop there in this case, but clearly ridiculous more generally), the soft anti-Corbyn concern-trolling of the 'unelectable' sort, pantomimic outrage at John McDonnell swearing, various celebrities talking over our heads, albeit very and arguably unnecessarily visibly, about how the 'hard left' are 'out of touch with real working-class people'. Take those for a small-plate version of what's going on. For the main course, you could look at the systematic efforts to construct an image of Corbyn's support as misogynistic or anti-semitic, or - most did-they-really-do-that of all - the erasure of the political specifics of the horrible, horrible murder of Jo Cox in an incredibly spurious show of being frightened by 'Momentum thugs'.

There's probably plenty to be added here but all I really want to suggest is that this strikes me as a very wilful performance of stupidity which is expedient politically in the same way that Boris Johnson's (sorry) 'buffoonery' used to be. It riles, but also implicitly suggests that it is unanswerable, producing a feeling either of complete demotivation (what's the point in saying anything back to this?) or inchoate fury. We're caught in the trap of not knowing who believes what they say, of being unclear just how much this is an attempt to grind gears, and it's consequently difficult to frame a useful and coherent response. Regardless, this is a sophisticated act of reality management which (probably) lacks obvious evil geniuses: there is something weirdly organic about the growth of this form of verbal attrition.        

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Language Without Apertures

This article appeared in Times Higher Education today. It’s whipped up some dust on Twitter already, and rightly so, but I feel almost thankful for its existence in as much as its glibnesses - many of which, to use the week’s fashionable term, were probably not executed in bad faith – serve as an incentive to try and pull together a couple of nagging thoughts about widespread attitudes to so-called ‘pretentiousness’, the conception of academia in the public imagination, and the increasing purchase anti-critique holds within the Humanities. Ultimately, I think, these strands resolve as a problem of authenticity or, more precisely, the question of what kinds of intellectual work can be authentic or relevant.

Undoubtedly, the main problem with the article is one that some non-academic readers might not immediately detect, namely its repeated deployment of tropes from (amongst others) postcolonial and feminist critique to index pretentiousness and ‘unintelligible’ academic writing. One only need browse Private Eye’s miserable, petty, drunk-at-lunchtime-alone-off-Frith-Street Pseuds’ Corner to figure out that the figure of the ‘Pseud’ is a politically loaded one. In that case, the 'Pseud' uses an intellectualised, put-on language which doesn’t conform to a certain, institutionally approved model of intelligence (i.e. being able to quote Tacitus and Pope in quick succession, then being hailed by the two other public schoolboys at the bar as  a 'genius’). Here, the spite seems to be directed more forcefully towards radical critique, but it’s certainly working to similar standards of establishment he’s-a-clever-chappishness.

What bothers me specifically, I think, is how the resistance to critique has for so long passed itself off as a form of non-duped perspicacity in British intellectual culture. I suppose my academic background would lead me to home in on Larkin and Kingsley Amis, amongst others of their era, as being particularly guilty of staging their own pig-headedness as clarity, and The Movement’s self-satisfied antimodernist plainspeak was certainly what gave Orwell’s horrible ‘Politicsand the English Language’ an aesthetic of sorts. Since the immediate postwar, one might expect this know-what-you-like-and-like-what-you-know attitude to have ebbed as cultural trends typically do, but it never really has. Blame the dynastic nature of British hard-bollocked reality, perhaps, with Martin Amis replacing Kingsley and bringing the likes of Hitchens and Craig Raine along for the ride, and with Don Paterson and some other Faber poets following in turn. Regardless, we’ve continually been sold the lie by a cultural elite that thinking critically is somehow elitist and worthy of reproach.

No doubt the hegemony of docile intellect is over-determined. I’m not claiming that the Big Establishment is sitting chuckling behind decades of writing, criticism and culture, wearing Amises K and M, and their strange acolytes, as glove puppets. The legacy of practical criticism plays a part, as does the ongoing need of Oxford’s English Department to have a USP when you can study up-to-the-minute takes on theory at Sussex or UCL. Perhaps the complex causes of this attitude are what make it so deep-rooted, distributing the work of institutionalising a particular, non-critical way of ‘being intellectual’ across multiple, semi-autonomous actors.    
With this in mind, this question of intelligibility and academic authenticity posits a ‘better’ language which is, so the story goes, presently crowded out by the impenetrable style of the critical elite. For the purpose of full disclosure, I admit that, in the first year of my PhD, now somehow over a decade ago, I occasionally made noises about the unearned verboseness of academic discourse. It was only when I got a new supervisor, who pointed out to me that my own, non-duped writing was ten times less penetrable and ten times more insufferably stylised than Derrida’s or Lacan’s, that I started to accept that it wasn’t academia that had the problem. As such, I can extend a little generosity of the they-know-not-what-they-do sort. Beyond that, perhaps it’s important to celebrate precisely the things Zachary Foster attempts to hold to account. It’s interesting that Foster’s attempts to enumerate the flaws of  critique’s style almost run out of space, as though he can’t quite pin down what this style is. I do believe that there exist certain reifications of critique’s language (my own repeated use of ‘certain’ being but one example), but surely the real usefulness of the idiom is its flexibility, its adaptability, its dialectical dexterity? In fact, surely the maximalism of critique, which seeks constantly to retool and expand language in the interests of conceptual precision – and this is the real function of the style, rather than the need to assert spurious intellectual authority – is itself a form of accessibility? My increased confidence as an academic writer coincided with my realisation that, very often, theory consisted of the admission that thought happened in language, and as such was subservient to it, but that attempts to think necessarily reshaped a constitutively inadequate language. Bottom-of-the-barrel Saussure, perhaps, but an enabling experience in how it pointed to the fact that only an extensively malleable language could be a truly critical one.

To grasp what this means, we have to try and conceive of what the phantom ‘better’ language might look like. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that all these post-Orwellians have even less interest in their hero in prescription, instead focusing on stretching the list of prohibitions. The insinuation seems to be that the language we should be using is self-evident, and does not need to be described: it is merely common sense in its verbal form. ‘Intelligence’, as such, is imagined as non-creative, non-associative, neophobic. It knows about things, and can describe them, but it never bridles in frustration at the lack of a word or larger verbal structure to pinpoint, and critically estrange, that of which we’ve always been aware but to which we’ve failed to pay adequate attention. Where people like Foster suggest that ‘academic’ language is impenetrable, it seems to me that the language which they fantasise about a resurgence of is a genuinely elitist idiom of already-knowing, rather than one of making.

Zadie Smith’s interesting but bad novel On Beauty offers a signal example of the framing of critique’s language in the form of its protagonist Howard Belsey, one of those nefarious poststructuralist shaggers that were a cliché even before Malcolm Bradbury stopped writing about them. Belsey – seemingly named for Catherine Belsey, and perhaps, I sometimes wonder, for Howard Caygill as well – undermines the confidence of his Art History students by turning a class on Rembrandt into a Benjaminesque treatise on the barbarous origins of aesthetic objects, and upsets his wife by sending an email to family friends accounting for 9/11 in Baudrillard’s terms. The novel comes down hard on Belsey’s theoretical inhumanity, while appearing to gesture in the direction of a poorly defined intuition as the most useful form of aesthetic response. Again, critique is framed as impenetrability, only here it’s conceived of as an intellectualising get-out clause in the face of ethical judgement.

The kinds of authentic, intuitive encounters with artworks Smith – whose caricatures of Marxist and poststructuralist thought make her appear less well-read than she is – appears to endorse are also danced around by (relatively) recent moves to write criticism post-critically. These are sometimes useful and interesting (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay on ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’; Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic) and sometimes very strange indeed (Rita Felski’s repetitive and rushed The Limits of Critique). At their best, they, as Sedgwick’s title suggests, fight for ways or redeeming or repurposing problematic texts; at their worst, they seem to repeat the assertion that critique is some form of elite gag, in both senses of that word.          

Some people who read articles like Foster’s are simply having prejudices reconfirmed, and will continue their minatory hover over the Guardian’s message boards to tell us we’re going to Pseuds’ Corner, or In The Sea. However, this kind of discourse also primes students to enter university classrooms in anticipation of a windowless non-conversation which will exclude them until they graduate. I’ve taught theory courses for eight or nine years now, and it’s always appeared to me that the preceding myth of theory is what makes an admittedly complex subject prohibitively difficult. Instead of finding ways to participate in the conversation made possible by critique, a conversation which is accepting of linguistic adventure and misadventure, cowed students hang back in anticipation of the arrival of a ‘plain’ language which will rescue them and gee them on to a First. However, this language is that learned from birth and refined in the debating societies of private schools, a language which really is without apertures.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

'Romantic and earnest, rather than laced with irony'

Earlier this year, I, to a degree accidentally, eavesdropped on a conversation that pissed me off at the time and has continued to gnaw subsequently. Two men - young middle-aged, Guardian-grade middle-class men, the kinds of Dadley Wigginses you'd suspect of having discovered bicycles circa September 2012 - were having a chat about a forthcoming beer festival in Lewes. Having once, again to a degree accidentally, ended up at a beer festival in Lewes, I started listening, wondering if I could chip in with some lairy Falstaffisms. Before I could make my contribution, the talk took a kink with which I'm becoming overfamiliar: 'I don't think I'll be going this year...too many young people with beards and tattoos...only going because beer is cool.' The emphasis there is as spoken.

This in itself isn't what I want to unpick here: rather, it's an attempt to give some indication of the overall climate of the quasi-moral panic about 'hipsters' in the mainstream media over the last eighteen months. At this point, it's worth going full disclosure and stating that I feel like pieces I wrote played their own small part in this incredibly fucking tedious discussion, even though, in my defence, it wasn't really 'hipsters' as such that I was trying to critique in pieces such as this and this. Rather, it was the cult of the organic, acoustic and spontaneous that Alex Niven had spotted in his (brilliant and still wildly under-read) Folk Opposition, a text which did much of the key early work in figuring out the ideological dimensions of Cameron's Britain. Back then, I'd have tended to draw a fault line between the bearded ham enthusiasts of Borough Market and hipsters who, after all, I envisioned as the constituency of those articles. Indeed, although I've certainly used the term pejoratively myself, I'm pretty sure I'm a 'hipster' by my own relatively trad description: I listen to drone music and glitchy electronica (and, of course, mainstream pop), I read archly nihilistic American and European fiction, I'm a 'cultural professional', I quote Žižek with relative confidence. I am an archetypal Quietus reader as much as an archetypal Quietus writer, in other words.

What's the difference between the trad hipsters and the 'hipsters' of contemporary media discourse? The ones you're supposed to be able to identify because they've got facial hair like Matthew Arnold and sleeve tattoos like Popeye, the ones who know what they're roasting this week and where they'll be drinking the next? For a start, I'd suggest that it's largely because the group of people the Independent seems to think are hipsters are really quite impressively un-hip, in as much as - to the best of my understanding - they spend their ITunes vouchers on Bon Iver and Mumford and Sons and Jamie XX and other stuff that, honestly, I'd turn down the opportunity to listen to even if the only alternative was to live out the rest of my days in a universe where Shed Seven were the only band ever to have existed. I rarely see the bring-a-typewriter-to-the-cafe set with a novel by Ben Lerner or Houellebecq or Thomas Bernhard: instead, it's always something with all the outward significations of bookishness in the eyes of the mainstream media, Orwell and F. Scott Fitzgerald being apparent favourites. Amongst these people, I see very little of the taste or the traits - the nihilism, the cynicism or the restless obscurantism - that I'd have associated with hipsters of the James Murphy vintage

What's interesting is the way that the beards-and-tattoos have come, through a series of weird conflations, to be associated with 'hipness'. Think once again of the Hipster Policeman meme. One of its incarnations was printed with text which said something like 'My favourite music? You wouldn't know it', bringing together the beard (and what name can this group have other than 'beards'?) and the notion of (annoyingly) rarefied taste. (The best bit in the story, I thought, was when the papers revealed that the HP was not a hipster, but a biker, which somehow redeemed him in the estimations of The Men In The Rugby And Cricket Clubs.) There's also that strange idea that the beards are defined by their 'postmodern irony' (millions of newspaper articles passim), once again positioning them in the lineage of hipsters going right back to Norman Mailer's racist essay on the subject. I'm just so confused! I have this image of facially hirsute Factory Floor fans watching Raccoons! While drinking CRAFT BEER! In Berghain! While listening to Scatman John on, er, steam-powered Walkmans!

The point is that the media has singularly failed to come up with an accurately expressive term for a cultural (or perhaps sub-cultural, I just don't know any more) group who are in many senses anti-hipsters. Provenance-obsessed, their focus seems to bend to the will of affective capitalism: where hipsters disavow(ed), the anti-hipster deals in capital-P Passion and intricate, over-focused knowledge. There is no space for magpie dilettantism in this culture. Once you've decided (for example) to brew, brewing is your whole existence, lived and breathed. You can't be out dancing every night, reading John Ashbery for breakfast and spending the afternoons watching Pasolini if there's brewing to do. Where the hipster could be seen as a hard-working rejection of the Protestant work ethic, the anti-hipster embraces it in all its artisanal majesty; that is to say that the beard is a true marker of entrepreneurship.

This, I think, is where things become confusing. The hegemonic principle in Cameron's England, and perhaps in all previous instantiations of England going back to the Civil War (with occasional happy if ineffective lapses), is that entrepreneurship is a thing to be applauded. Capital's avatar - the hardworking aspirant driven by Passion and knowledge - cannot be besmirched. However, Capital finds itself in something of a quandary here as it also needs a scapegoat for covering up some of its less ruddy-faced mechanics. One of the pleasing turns in the intensifying conversation about gentrification of late is that we can no longer blame this complex process of social cleansing and upwards capital transfer on 'consumption preferences': the economic and demographic transformation of Brixton does not happen because some twentysomethings decide they like pizzas cooked in woodfired ovens. However, given the rising anger about gentrification, there's a desperation to produce a narrative which leads away from the deep finance and the ideologically primed deregulation which powers the phenomenon. 

As a result, the cultural arm of neoliberalism - your Time Outs, your Evening Standards, your Guardian Guides - have to pull off the complex trick of keeping their entrepreneurial anti-hipster audience onside and blaming someone or something other than neoliberalism for gentrification. Enter the hipster. In the pages of Time Out, the hipster is the idiot with the beard and the tattoo and the craft beer who is not the idiot with the beard and the tattoo and the craft beer reading the article. Why is this? One answer might be 'journalistic laziness', but I think that's too meek. A scapegoat needs to be visible, or at least visualisable, and, as such, someone who has a lot of Rapoon records and goes to poetry nights isn't really a plausible villain. However, there are a lot of people with beards and tattoos drinking craft beer and eating pulled pork in inner London (and Brighton, and Bristol, and Manchester) at the moment: we know what they look like. The trick is to give these visual signifiers some behavioural characteristics which don't really match, to overlay them with Nathan Barley-style flippancy and 'postmodern irony' and all of that stuff, which only exists in the vaguest of ways. What it means, then, that the 'hipster' is always someone else, the next person, not the heroic entrepreneur who is actually the reader of the Evening Standard's streetfood reviews.

This all came to me when I was reading an interview in the reliably despicable Shortlist with the almost infinitely maligned Alan Keery, one of the twins who runs the Cereal Cafe in Shoreditch. The discussion around the Cereal Cafe has been almost heroic in its point-missing: if ever there was a tale of structure and symptom being confused, this was it - although, in some mad Baudrillardian twist, the structure now seems to be doing a competent job of absorbing the symptom, with the venture now apparently to be franchised to Dubai. Anyway, the interview revolved largely around Hamish MacBain machine-gunning classic tropes of broadsheet hipster analysis at Keery and finding out that they were bouncing off. Keery, it turned out, wasn't particularly middle-class (I'm hardly shocked to find that a pair of lads called Gary and Alan Keery from Belfast turn out not to fit the model of the Gap Yah bourgeoisie), and - more interestingly in terms of when you see a big fuck-off crack open up in ideology - was not even in it for the bantz. 'Thick beard aside,' writes MacBain, 'Alan [...] does not seem like a hipster. His love for cereal seems romantic and earnest, rather than laced with irony.' Hot news: business owner did not open business for a joke. 

What this apparent aside does, ideologically, is charge the whole idea of anti-hipster authenticity with goodness (it is clearly opposed to the shadowy 'intolerable hipster douchebags' mentioned earlier in the piece). Being in it for the Passion is admirable: it sets you apart (as if Passion was not the #1 marketing trope in contemporary UK culture). This is not about hipster disavowal; this is about full-blooded commitment to the cause of Cereal (or Crisps, or Burgers, or Dog Food) and who are you or I to complain? It isn't business, either in its small or large incarnation, that does gentrification: it's that hipster objet petit a, who always left the Cereal Cafe just before you got there, leaving a trail of socioeconomic chaos in its wake.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Big Society Microcosm #2 - Pret a Manger

Despatches from self-aggrandisingly 'green' sandwich chains:

On a coffee cup:

A mastery of dribble tests, button-holed cremas, milk frothing, steaming and stretching is absolutely fundamental to graduating as a Pret Barista. It takes about 12 weeks to create a perfect Pret coffee. Time well spent (we think).

Or, as a late-period J.H. Prynne poem:

A mastery of dribble
tests, button-holed
cremas, milk frothing,
steaming and stretching
is absolutely fundamental.

Etc etc. Practical criticism time: why is that parenthesised 'we think' so enraging? Qualifications of this nature seem rather common at the moment. They mean something like 'actually, the thing we said before the parenthesis was aggressively meant, but we want to remind you that it's your opinion that counts, whatever we believe, because, hey, everything's subjective, right?'


And, once a bond of trust has been established between company and customer, we can get onto workplace politics. Pret's manifesto on napkins, printed - conveniently enough - on napkins:

This napkin is made from 100% recycled stock (Pret's sustainability department is militant, we're making headway). If Pret staff get all serviette-ish and hand you huge bunches of napkins (which you don't need or want) please give them the evil eye. Waste not want not.

Ready to explode yet? It's an interesting use of the word 'militant', isn't it? I mean, I suspect they aren't proclaiming their affiliation to Militant Tendency or the Naxalites or Sendero Luminoso or whoever. And that faux-chummy 'evil eye', when what they actually mean is 'give our staff a load of shit if they hand you one too many napkins' and 'criticise the individual, not the brand', just as NPower and so on ring themselves with a palisade of low-paid telephone operatives...


In 1998, [Pret a Manger] employed 1,400 people, of whom 19% were from the UK and 60% from other European Union countries, mainly in Eastern Europe.

John Berger, A Seventh Man:

A migrant's experience of capitalism, because he is exploited in every field, becomes, if he is politically aware of it at all, a very unified experience. In his life he is brought face to face, always negatively, with the unity of the entire system.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Big Society Microcosm #1 - The British Library

It seems a while - it is a while, now I check - since I wrote this piece on Andy Beckett's excellent history of the seventies for 3AM. As austerity/ Big Society bed themselves in further and further, it's interesting to note the ways in which an increasing variety of specific locations are beginning, structurally if not visually, to resemble the ideological microcosms (oil rigs; Saltley Gate) Beckett identified in the Heath-Callaghan years. Today I was handed a leaflet by a member of PCS outside the British Library, where I've spent a fair bit of time over the last four or five months. I hadn't realised that staff cuts have been and continue to be made at the BL, although such a situation is obviously absolutely harmonious with a world in which Jeremy Hunt - to whom the PCS advise protesting - can be the Secretary of State for Culture.

My observations suggest that the staff at the BL, particularly those who work in the reading rooms, are asked to put up with an unpleasant amount of rudeness, some of which is no doubt the venting of frustrations at a slightly absurd cataloguing and delivery system. The work is clearly difficult; the Mac-wielders (themselves symptomatic) who drift into the Humanities reading rooms to read two sentences of lecturer-prescribed Zizek and mess around on Facebook often make frustrating 'customers'. Immediately, there's an incommunicado between workers - particularly the security staff, I think - and a nominally liberal or leftish constituency of users, many of whom seem to be projecting a cultivated image of bookishness. I'm not sure if it was while I was living abroad that 'moderately dissident intellectual' became an off-the-peg look, and I know that going on about h*****s is basically the mark of the prematurely grumpy thirtysomething, but styling oneself after late-period (broke and tubercular) Orwell really seems to mark a new phase in the history of appropriation.

Anyhow, efforts to inhabit a vaguely-defined mid-twentieth-century thinkerishness are matched, with stunning predictability, by the BL's catering outlets, which are outsourced to Peyton and Byrne. Many people will already be aware of this, but P&B is a company dreamt up by a scriptwriter working on a satire of The Cameron Years twenty years from now, only it's somehow broken loose from its fictional moorings and travelled back in time as its owners thought we all needed a real-time encapsulation on the absolute cultural and political moribundity of the coalition years. It is echt Big Society in the same way as the pub in Goodnight Sweetheart was echt Myth of the Blitz, from the chummy 'X & Y'-formula name - a branding essential at the moment - to its gourmet fairy cakes and (of course) KC&CO font. This is what people who like books like to eat. People who like books like tea and cake. Books and tea and cake are bedfellows.

So, a downsized staff with concomitantly increased workplace stress levels catering to a politically-confused generation of depressive-hedonic studes while several outlets of a thirties-themed 'artisan' cafe rake in the profits that come with a semi-captive audience? That's Britain's 'intellectual heartbeat' in 2012. Please write to Jeremy Hunt about this, as if he'll pay any attention whatsoever.

Friday, January 20, 2012

How the Schools are Killing CREATIVITY!!!

(With apologies to Sir Ken Robinson, who shall not be referred to again in this piece)

It seems that Philip Hensher, one of those literary butterflies who seem to get an awful lot of press work without ever demonstrating a tremendous capacity for critical insight, has provoked what Private Eye might call a 'stir' with this rather scathing (and unpleasantly personal) review of the new UEA anthology. As assessments go, it's very much in the Christopher Hitchens tradition of using its subject predominantly as the occasion for a discussion of something to which it is linked only tenuously; this 'something', according to Giles Foden, is propelled by Hensher's bitterness over his failure to secure a chair in Creative Writing at UEA. Funnily enough, the review failed to mention this.

I spent a year as a faculty member in UEA's School of Literature and Creative Writing, and I suspect my suspicions about the merits of CW as a discipline were fairly obvious. During my interview for that position, I discussed what I saw as an increasing division between the critical and creative missions within the School, and argued that CW students and staff were endowed with a glamour that risked making the traditional activities of a Literature department look like donkey work. One of the main drawbacks of the proliferation of CW courses in UK universities has been to occlude the fact that criticism is in itself a creative discipline which draws on the same faculties of linguistic deftness and associative confidence that a poet or novelist requires to be successful. Indeed, coming to the work of close-readers like Christine Brooke-Rose, J. Hillis Miller, Maud Ellmann, or Margery Perloff (not to mention the scalpel-sharp analyses of poet-critics like J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland) is frequently more invigoratingly unsettling than going over the latest collection by a Bridport Prize hopeful whose verse allegedly 'reveals the magic of the everyday', or one more post-Sebaldian traipse through English marginalia.

The latter-day lionisation of creative practice as an academic discipline is also ideologically inflected in ways which strike me as not particularly subtle. By driving a wedge between 'criticism' and 'creativity', the academy implies that the critical thinker somehow lacks creative flair. In an age where every TV commercial seems to want to liberate our inner Picasso, and in which the inability to do that is portrayed as an ultimately limiting sense of self-doubt brought on by the critical superego (equated in Big Society's cultural logic, of course, with the alleged paternalism of big government), to 'lack creativity' is to suffer stigmatisation. What would be genuinely empowering, I think, would be a kind of left-Reithian approach to the teaching of literature which demanded that a large volume of reading be undertaken in order to bequeath a sturdy knowledge base from which further creative or critical (I'll repeat: the distinction isn't mine) projects could embark. Instead, there's an implicit message that degree courses which place a heavy emphasis on the creative can be flown through with only the briefest of dalliances with an extant body of work. The message of CW, on at least one level, is 'because you're worth it': there's a pandering to neoliberal subjectivity which nurtures a fantasy of the 'individual' whose experiences deserve to be expressed because they are more significant than social, collective experience. Personal experience is divorced from a social epistemology: I think György Lukács was wrong in his assessment of modernism, but his claims about its asociality could be transposed correctly for a study of the ideology of CW. (What I'm trying to say about the contemporary love of creativity is perhaps better expressed by Mark Fisher in this essay on psychotherapy.)

Returning to Hensher, then, I think his opening points make room for a broader discussion of the usefulness of CW courses in general, but don't pursue that path. UEA has, historically, probably done more than its competitors to ensure that transactions between the critical and creative maintain a certain fluidity - hence Angela Carter, Lorna Sage, Sebald, Vic Sage and a litany of others - and it seems to me that extra-institutional pressures are the predominant explanation for the increasing separation of the disciplines there. These forces have been generated by the determination of competing institutions to chase the quick buck with more straightforwardly 'creative' courses, something which Hensher clearly has no intention of acknowledging. What might have been an opportunity to have a serious conversation about the role of the market in undermining both components of the type of literary education being talked about is lost amidst snide claims about the merits of individual writers.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Rupert Thomson - Divided Kingdom (Pt 1)

I first read Thomson two years ago, when I finally picked up the copy of The Insult I bought on an Amazon recommendation while purchasing some Chris Paling novels right at the beginning of my PhD. Along with Paling, he's a novelist about whom I've been meaning to set down some thoughts about for some time, but never quite got round to it. Having just completed Divided Kingdom, now seems as good a time as any, although I'm still nowhere near sure that what I have to say is particularly coherent.

Although Divided Kingdom's plot isn't particularly relevant to what interests me about it, which connects with these ideas about Adorno, Kafka, and Sara Kane, it's worth sketching in brief. In response to Britain's becoming 'a troubled place [...] obsessed with acquisition and celebrity [...] defined by envy, misery and greed', the government have implemented a 'rearrangement' in which the nation is quartered into red, yellow, blue, and green zones. These regions are populated according to temperament, with citizens of the old state being categorised after psychological assessment as choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic, or sanguine. Thomson's narrator is removed from home as a young child and packed off for a new life in the red quarter, the peaceful and unquestioning realm of the sanguine. On becoming an adult, he begins to work for a government agency involved in reclassifying and transporting problem cases. After crossing into the phlegmatic blue quarter for a conference, he finds his way into a mysterious nightclub in which he finds he is capable of recalling his childhood prior to the reorganisation: the experiences he has in this place cause him to embark upon a quest around the four sectors, pursued by secret police, in which he attempts to assert his right to live outside the absurd classificatory system.

Critics attempting to pin down Thomson's weird, roving, oneiric prose latch upon all kinds of comparisons. There are elements of Nabokov in his ability to load sentences with intimations of an imminent, yet indiscernible, disaster; his scrupulously-drawn characters have shades of Dickens (and perhaps Patrick Hamilton and Jean Rhys) about them; there are marked traces of Chandler, Kafka, Ballard, and perhaps Swift. To an already heady and incongruous-seeming mix, I'd add that his narrative structures, in which individuals are deprived of social reassurances as they range desperately across wide geographic canvases, recall William Godwin's Caleb Williams, as well as the late-thirties political allegories of Rex Warner and Ruthven Todd. His contemporaries, for my money, would be Paling and, at a push, China Miéville, although his novels don't seem quite as committed to the logic of low fantasy as those of the latter.

It's not hard to make it through one of Thomson's novels, either. 'Compelling' is a word used frequently when he's under review, and one doesn't struggle to untangle his language, which is never anything but lucid. Nicholas Royle - I presume the novelist and critic, rather than the critic and novelist, although I'm happy to be corrected on this - summed up Divided Kingdom's accessibility (there's no other word for it) in an Independent review which also attempted to get at what its apparently allegorical element was trying to communicate:

On one level, Divided Kingdom is a fabulous romp, an epic adventure story of flight and threat, fear and wonder, shipwrecks, espionage and breathless chase-scenes. On another it's a meditation on what it means to cross borders, to be alien, to seek asylum. It's a sly recasting of the nature versus nurture debate and a compelling account of personal development, of an individual's search for his own true temperament and identity.

I don't necessarily have an issue with any of these claims: on some level, the novel is a simultaneously existential and political investigation of how one becomes and maintains a 'self'. Yet I feel that, in his attempt to translate allegorical content which is ultimately as accessible as the swashbuckling story which encodes it, Royle fails to demonstrate what the real challenge of Divided Kingdom, and indeed of everything I know of Thomson's work, is. The problem isn't to elucidate a meaning, but to describe an effect, to discuss what it is in the writing that, as Adorno said of Kafka's manipulation of toponyms, makes one 'shudder'. Like Warner and Todd, allegorists whose message was overwhelmingly clear, there's a surplus which doesn't seem to dovetail with any of the political or spiritual claims dispensed by the metaphorical structure, and this excess sets off a thrilling form of discomfort.

Everyone who was read to as a child is familiar with this feeling, and it often occurs to me that a desire to maintain it is what sets a certain kind of reader off along a trajectory which leads to (amongst others) Kafka, Beckett, Blanchot, and the nouveau roman. It's the experience one has when fiction peels away radically from the real world (or the world of literary realism) yet exerts a demand which prevents one from committing to a project of escapism. The ontological disjointedness suggests the legitimation of a demarcated fantasy world, a safe space in which postulations about truth and identity can be explored to their outer limits; the fact that the relentless rule-switching occurs, however, undermines one's sense of security because its refutation of real-world logic is imposed from the empirical world. Lewis Carroll's fiction, which, like Thomson's, sloughs off allegorical interpretation by dint of its excess of apparently translatable material, is exemplary of what I'm talking about here. I'll quote - experimentally - from Eric Rabkin's The Fantastic in Literature, if only to nominate a critic who I think is interested in emphasising the (perhaps embodied) experience and immediacy of reading over the intellectual activity of deciphering:

The fantastic is a direct reversal of ground rules, and therefore is in part determined by those ground rules. The truly irrelevant has nothing to do with ground rules, and therefore can no more be fantastic than it can be realistic. One may define the fantastic in part as 'conceived or appearing as if conceived by an unrestrained imagination' only so long as we remember that all imaginations are restrained at least by the perspectives necessary to create a work of narrative art.
I need to go back to Rabkin to ascertain what he means by the 'truly irrelevant', but it's a term that lends itself to appropriation in this case. Thomson's writing is absolutely packed with events that gild themselves with the trappings of significance and yet are in no way recuperated into the narrative's structures of meaning. One way of describing this involves a bastardisation of Freud's notion of overdetermination, in which the proliferation of possible ideational content 'behind' or 'underneath' an image threatens to obliterate its capacity to signify. Another might be to say that the accumulation of the non-recuperable persists until it becomes structure, determined negatively.

This explanation works for Kafka and Beckett, and perhaps even for Harold Pinter, but when applied to writers who have something to say, either on a psychosocial level (like Henry Green, or Thomson) or a political one (like Warner, Todd, and Thomson again) it seems somewhat jarring. Why arrange an abyss which replicates in negative the coordinates of a determinate argument? Why undercut (what appears to be) a conviction with doubt? My sense for some time has been that Warner and Todd didn't do this on purpose: it was simply a happy accident that they lacked sufficient control as writers of fiction to keep on message, meaning that their readers are presented with texts presenting a challenge far more sophisticated than their authors envisaged. I can't lay the same charge of naivety at Green; Thomson, too, is far too erudite to be a structural savant.