Old negation for now

Theodor Adorno – Aspects of the New Right-Wing Extremism (Polity)

Adorno gave this lecture in 1967, invited by the Socialist Students of Austria at the University of Vienna. The text is taken from a recording made of him there, and from his notes.

Adorno began by stating that the conditions for right wing extremism still exist in Germany. They are the ‘tendency towards concentration of capital’ and precarious work within that. There is a relationship between this concentration of capital ‘and immiseration’.

The western 21st century so far has seen ‘concentration of capital’ like no other time and so we can conclude – if Adorno was right, and his evidence and ours seem undeniable – that the conditions for right wing extremism are still with us.

But of course we are further down the road than that. The conditions are not just in place now, latent, but an open right wing nationalism is enthroned in the USA, Brazil, Poland and in a pathetic form in the so-called United Kingdom.

This book is a timely republishing. It is essential to anyone who is deeply concerned by the global political shifts going under the shorthand term of ‘populism’. And Manchester Review of Books are concerned.

What Adorno calls ‘the spectre of technological unemployment’, echoing Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, is a key driver of proto-fascism and this is how fascism and capitalism are linked.

As the afterword by Volker Weiss puts it, and so very clearly, the total interchangeability of most workers plays out – in a nationalist context – in the fantasy of their interchangeability by foreign incomers.

Adorno describes people who feel themselves to be unemployed while they are employed. In our time this condition saturates everything, and not just the formally ‘precarious’ workers for whom this syndrome is now considered normal.

Adorno describes the threat of ‘constant downgrading’ the bourgeois is faced with. Averting this involves a clinging on to, and one can of course cling on to nationalism.

People refuse to believe the cause of the malaise is capital. They then scapegoat the socialist and the ‘other’, be that a racial, sexual, gendered or cultural other, ‘the intellectual’ for instance.

This can also manifest in an ‘unconscious desire for disaster, for catastrophe’. Ultimately this runs to a desire for the end of the self, and with it everything that maintains it. Freud’s death drive.

In a split West Germany, in 1967, the ‘fear of the east’ was the fear of a world not very far away full of horror. In Britain, newspapers still bring a generated fear to the doors of millions each day, of the ‘other’ from a savage, foreign place. The fear of that person and of that place is a fear of someone soaking up privileges and ‘letting in’ the harsh conditions of the otherness from whence they came.

In such situations, some people desire the end, not just the end of themselves, but of everything. Apocalyptic fantasy plays out in the cornered worker, and in the Nazi leader, in Himmler, Goebbels, et al. Hitler constantly threatened to shoot himself, jokingly, and of course, at the end, not. It is the pathology of the man who shoots his estranged wife and their children. Adorno recalls his essay on ‘the authoritarian personality’ and the psychologies of the Nazi leadership, a study only bolstered by Arendt’s work and Joachim Fest’s book The Face of the Third Reich.

Adorno describes the processes of creeping fascism as pathological, a kind of second currency of repressed ideas that circulate alongside publicly speakable main ideological currency. In Brexit’s ‘take back control’, we saw the fear of unemployment, the downgrading of the middle classes – all a product of capital accumulation – re-emerging in an impossible desire for mastery of one’s own destiny via making this second currency of ideology speakable. The specific second ideological currency breaking through and mixing with the mainstream included Farage and his Breaking Point poster.

In 1959 Adorno declared that ‘the survival of National Socialism in democracy’ is ‘more threatening than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy’. Weiss also explains how the bots and trolls of social media platforms are what Adorno described as the rational means to irrational ends in his own time, only refigured on a new plateau of technological complexity, which Adorno predicted and diagnosed acutely elsewhere.

Adorno in 1967 points out how certain rightwing actors refuse dialogue because ‘it is a matter of existential opposites’, using the language of existentialist philosophy the naive might assume resistant to co-option. I have written about the ways in which postmodernism evacuated university discourse and found a sinister life outside, in political discourse and ‘post-truth’. I see parallels.

Trendy, or more accurately, ‘recently in vogue’ philosophies are not immune from recuperation by the right. In 1967 of course this was existentialism. I believe Walter Benjamin would have been interested in the ‘recently in vogue’ nature of postmodernism in 2020. In the same way that one can find freedom to move in the loosened, no longer central world of old streets, recently dumped pop philosophy is useful to the demagogue precisely because it has already been through many households before being thrown out.

People have got used to denying what they affirm and affirming what they deny, as  Jameson described it. But the knowing playfulness has been drained away until we are left with a base hypocrisy and selfishness which was always in postmodern culture. This naturalised hypocrisy and selfishness, playing out in the polling booths, is now dangerous.

Adorno talks of what became known as ‘dog whistle’ politics in terms of anti-semitism being detectable across several editions of a newspaper. It never being spoken out loud does not mean that it is not there. ‘Openly anti-democratic aspects are removed’ Adorno warns. Now we have an idea of democracy mobilised to enable bad ideologies which in the end are authoritarian in nature. It being contradictory never stops it from working on vast amounts of people.

Adorno explains that ‘some of the most effective slogans of neo-fascism use phrases like “now one can choose again.”‘ How we have seen this in the Brexit Leave campaign, the following Conservative election was merely a crowning of that coup.

What matters is ‘power, conceptless praxis’ and ultimately ‘domination’. It is Dominic Cummings’ reading of game theory, of The Art of War, Thucydides and Bismarck. The ‘conceptless praxis’ is the endless digital prediction machine he uses. This endless digital prediction machine is ahistorical, in that it denies a longwave view of history, but it is totally historical, because as a set of techniques it has been created precisely by longwave historical vectors.

It is via Adorno that we get the long view. He even describes what is now known as a ‘playbook’;

‘…there are a relatively small number of recurring, standardized and completely objectified tricks that are very poor and thin in themselves yet, by being constantly repeated, gain a certain propogandist value…’

Of course he worked through this much earlier with Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Here though, Adorno describes this set of techniques as a ‘gigantic psychological rip-off’ and says the masses need to be trained to resist it, that the techniques in the playbook should be given ‘very drastic names’.

But Adorno’s agonism is civilised: We must not fight ‘lies with lies’ he concludes – and I recall recent demands of the Labour Party to fight as nastily as the Tories have – but to ‘counteract it with the full force of reason, with the genuinely unideological truth.’

In this Adorno is, as Detlev Claussen called him, the ‘last intellectual’. But he is also the truly crowning figure of the enlightenment, rather than Hegel. He arrived at the head of the geist carrying all its darkness in negative form.

Adorno contains the full dialectic. Essential reading.

– Steve Hanson

Lashings of Ginger Beer

Ysenda Maxtone Graham – British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays, 1930-1980 (Little, Brown, 2020)

I can’t decide if this book has come out at the perfect time, or the worst time imaginable. Either way, reading British Summer Time Begins in the summer of 2020 is quite an experience.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s new book is a study of the summer holidays. Not a holiday, she clarifies, but the holidays; the big gap between one school year and the next.

There might be a holiday somewhere in there – a trip to France, or more likely Butlins – but the abiding experience, Graham tells us, is of stasis. Not our current stasis, mind, but the open-front-door, gaggles of children, parents-having-no-idea-where-you-are kind of stasis.

No plans. No responsibilities. Just fun.

In researching the book, Graham interviewed a wide range of people. Most are working or middle class, offering nostalgias that most of us can share in, while the occasional unexpected story is provided by the ultra-wealthy and the poverty-stricken.

Even the widest chasm of class, Graham shows us, could be bridged by the spirit of the summer.

Both Dennis Skinner, son of an unemployed miner, and Malcom Innes, son of Lord Lyon King of Arms, share the memory of being booted out of the house every morning. Sent out without a penny and told to make their own fun, and not to come back before evening.

Of course, Skinner might have played on a slag heap, while Innes bothered the grouse, but the essential lesson here is the same. Children enjoyed an unprecedented level of freedom during mid-century summers, and had a distinct lack or toys and gadgets to fill their time with.

The summer gave children time to develop their own identity.

The school year was rigorously ordered and meticulously timetabled. Every action was accounted for. Only when school finished did children have time to muck about. And it’s during this mucking about when many discovered their talents; musical, sporting, or intellectual.

The book is wide-ranging in its scope and never dull. We learn about dreadful siblings, giant gangs of cousins, sacred grandparents and pervy uncles. We visit pebbly beaches, smelly caravans, the Scottish Highlands and Tenerife.

There are strange familial beliefs. The sea is warmer when it’s raining. Dragging a chain behind your car will cure car sickness. Swimming after eating will give you cramp.

I still believe the last of those.

Yes, this is a book of nostalgia. But if the nostalgia encourages parents to give their children a little more freedom, it will have served a good purpose. Our schools have bars on now, and summers are spent online. Every parent should read this book, I think, and remember what we’re losing.

– Joe Darlington

Recalibrating the ‘No’

Frédéric Gros – Disobey! The Philosophy of Resistance (Verso)

Gros begins with the historic inequality, the 1% vs the 99%, before turning to the other staggering divide it is connected to – the utterly world-historic lack of effective resistance to it. ‘Talk of “injustice” has become obsolete’ Gros says, we ‘are in an age of indecency’. ‘Cupidity and enjoyment of power are the rule.’ He is right.

He continues. Nature is threatened by us, of course we are threatened by nature again, in new ways, but we are part of nature too. Gros describes the spiral of resistance and attack, between us and our environment. The enlightenment. Overcoming nature through ‘technique’. This seems such a lightweight word when it involved the whole of industrial modernity, mass production, and learning from the economics of world war.

Gros tells us the renaissance cycle is over, it is ‘the end of springtime’. This seems like a note from the nineteenth century somehow. I thought we’d had summer, didn’t you? And that everything was a bit wrecked by the end of it, too.

He moves onto the parable of Christ and the Inquisitor from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The possibility of a god-for-us is questioned in this story. It is a well studied section of modern literature. Gros then discusses Machiavelli’s The Prince. This Preface is as effective as Marshall Berman’s use of the Faust myth in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air. It is clearly Gros’s territory, literature and philosophy.

What Gros calls the ‘reversal of monstrosities’ comes from reflecting on the Nuremberg Trials. From here men are punished not because they disobeyed, but because they obeyed. Eichmann famously complained that he was being targeted for taking orders and counter-signing actions along with others.

Gros then conducts his entire (but short) chapter on Submission without mentioning money in any significant way. Why do we submit? ‘Because we cannot do otherwise’ is the answer here. There are social forces, of course, but the economy too, surely? Georg Simmel’s blasé attitude and money. Many people have direct social forces breathing down their necks, but others live in something they consider to be freedom, a freedom by money.

Surely this is ‘why it is so easy to come to agreement on the desperate state of the world today, and yet so hard to disobey it.’ Surely individual rebellion, like the possibility of an individual saviour explored by Dostoyevsky, is impossible without addressing the root power of money. The left always addresses the bad side of money. To read Marx properly is to see the way in which money freed up, as well.

In ‘Surplus Obedience’ Gros explores the history of philosophical surprise – that one little man can rule nations despotically. But surely what we have in Britain – on one level only – is what I want to call slack despotism. In the week the report on Russian interference arrived – a government report – government leaders buried it.

Gros quotes Spinoza ‘I see everywhere people fighting for their enslavement as if it was a matter of salvation for them.’ It is tempting to agree that we are in this era again, but not so fast. Gros tells us people must overcome their worship of the little man of power, but perhaps the conundrum in post-truth populist politics is precisely that people choose the little man knowing he is a liar and a fraud. How else would Johnson be Prime Minister?

Via a discussion of Foucault’s ‘conjugal fidelity’ Gros asks how we might develop an ethic of resistance. How might we have fidelity to a ‘No’ and a care of self, and a responsibility to others.

It seems to me that one of the cracks in the current power facade is that of a government which does not really want to govern. We also see the paradox of a nation who think leaders are bunk and so vote for the most venal because of that. Their rebellion is only a rebellion against a prior era of smug middle class reasonableness which was – they are right – quite fake.

If that is the case then perhaps we must govern ourselves instead and break the ties of taxes and everyday obedience to the social contract. But we have seen that naive anarchist road. Anyone who has been to Christiana in Denmark will understand what an idealistic notion it is.

I weave in and out of hope and despair in similar ways throughout my reading of Gros’s book. As you can see, it made me spar with it, and that is exactly its strength and the basis of the recommendation we pass to you to engage with it.

– Steve Hanson

Free speech and the fash

Gavan Titley – Is free speech racist? (Polity)

‘Free speech’ could turn to any topic in the human world, but these days it is often about race. This is Gavan Titley’s question, in his volume in the Debating Race series, published by Polity.

Titley explores the contradictions well, including the idea that society is multiple and hybrid, but assured anti-racism is in many cases a default white. ‘In societies convinced of their postracial status’, he explains, ‘racism is always something else, and happens somewhere else.’

Within that – which I think is missing here – is class. When people start to draw that line in the sand and say ‘well over here it’s all fine, but over there man, stinking racists’, they have not mined their own discourses honestly.

Titley explores this, in one strong section via a reading of Wendy Brown, the stark fact that the economic uprooting of white former industrial lives often finds expression in digitally renewed culture wars linked to aggressive ‘populist’ party politics. Of course, to look at the classed and often masculine nature of white resentment redoubles the problem of racism, but the full complexity of it must be given.

What I got from reading the black radicals, Huey Newton particularly, was a sense of someone using his emotional tensions and acculturated prejudices productively. What I found most interesting about Newton was when he wrote on gay culture and admitted that he found himself uncomfortable with male homosexuality. He wrote through his discomfort, he didn’t suppress it and short-circuit the full process to suddenly arrive at being ‘right on’. Huey Newton, a great warrior against prejudice, actually mobilised his own prejudices in order to try to tackle them.

If there is a problem with political correctness it is surely that this process is cut out in favour of a reified trope. But what Titley denies with force here is that ‘free speech’ processes will somehow solve the riddle. This is the endless rightwing waterfall, that free speech without limits needs defending, that an open and continual discourse will somehow result in capital T truth.

I think this contains the same skewed logic as defenses of free markets as ‘self-correcting’. The idea that a limitless free exchange of views can produce an Elysian Fields of harmony lies beneath some naive free speech demands. I believe it is no coincidence that the two structures of meaning are virtually identical. Other free speech demands, and this is a core point of Titley’s, want to sow anarchy, dissent and ultimately racial civil war.

Far from being a democratic process leading to agreement, concensus or truth, Titley argues, the free speech machine acts as a kind of discourse lab for the right, particularly online. The free flow of debate unfettered by politically correct limits does not solve racism but produces it. It’s a Foucauldian argument in many ways.

The ‘hallmark of the putative “post-truth” era is not just the proliferation of competing “truths” but the structuring force of the reactionary contention that there is a truth, and it is being repressed.’

Postmodernity has vanished from academic discourse as a structuring paradigm and re-emerged in non-academic society as a negative philosophical energy. I wrote about this for the Journal of Critical Education Policy a while back. The neo-right are using the First Amendment obsessively. Proto-fascist groups are using ‘freedom’ in the name of some potentially very unfree future power. Mainstream political parties have been hollowed and refitted as populist post-truth power structures in exactly the same way.

But it would be wrong to just watch the Reddit threads to find confirmation. I saw a white middle class man recently – judging by his house – nailing up a sign outside talking about ‘my white privilege’. There was something about it which whiffed of defense through martyrdom. The fact that the sign went up on his fence seemed important. It would be far too extreme to suggest a No Irish / Blacks / Dogs for the ‘postracial’ world. As though by putting up the sign he would retain his privilege in the coming culture wars, that he would be spared, blind to the fact that of course exceptions would in this case destroy the rule of real equality. But there was a weird, gluey unconscious vibe to watching him do it. There was nothing pure about the act, which gave watching it a compelling feel.

On the other side it had a one-upping feel to it, a woker-than-thou dimension that might also be acting as a virtue signal to his other white middle class neighbours. I could not quite believe that – as I do of Huey Newton, whatever else one might say of him – that here was a man who mobilised his prejudices in order to try to tackle them. And the prejudices are inevitably there, because they are woven tightly into the language we all use.

I went past later and the ‘my white privilege’ sign had been removed in favour of pro-BLM signs. Tellingly, the Guardian had just posted warnings about the slipperiness of testimonies to white fragility. Even the most well meaning actions contain problems. At the same time, he was literally hanging it up on the wall, and there was a world-historic first about it, a moment triggered by the BLM upsurge of 2020.

Everything being ‘problematic’ – a sort of poststructuralist cultural studies hangover – often halts any realpolitikal solutions. This book does not wade into that quicksand, and for that alone I recommend it. It is clear, manageable and does not reproduce that fakely neutral tone that some academic discourses on race do. It does not shy away from complexity either.

This book is both a worthwhile contribution to the history of writing on racism and a timely publication considering recent events. Highly recommended.

– Steve Hanson

Quiet concentration

As Best We Can – Jeffrey Wainright (Carcanet)

Many of these quiet poems have a disproportionately unsettling effect.

‘The Window Ledge’ describes objects at different times of day. Stopped clocks, old photographs, the inexplicable candle that was in a room for years, but never lit. These details speak to a slow world with cliff edges of change, hinted at in the opening poem ‘Give Me a Line’:

‘Until we shall be separated / the world scarcely needing to adjust / as we are so differently disposed.’

Its inward view also speaks to the recent moment of lockdown. The interior has become the world:

‘Morning or night is what I see beyond the lightwell, morning then night, morning then night.’

Its geist is completely of the zeit without ever mentioning ‘the virus’. I assume publishers are clearing the snowdrifts of coronavirus manuscripts from the front door around about now and here is a reminder that very good poets can hit a historical target and transcend it in one. Zen archery of the most effective sort.

As the title suggests, the collection speaks to the everyday, to getting by. We have all been doing that. In 2019 many were stretched like elastic ready to snap and the place of these poems largely passed them by then – despite those people being in the domestic probably once a day. Soon after it became most people’s lives.

‘Dreams of Lennox Road’ explores those experiences – while sleeping – of old domestic spaces, personal histories that return. Again many of us will have had that. There’s a somber feel to it, like Norway, and even I don’t know if that makes any sense, but it is how I experience the after-effect of reading the book.

It is very British though. ‘My Father and the Onward Tendency’ explores family history and ruin:

‘Yet within the year modernity was scrappage / down the river on Churchill’s vengeful barge’ as later his father ‘walked to the old Exchange on Lockett’s Lane / back to the thirties adding up his dole’.

It reminds me of Ashbery’s line ‘it’s bankruptcy, the human haul’, and no better time than now and the immediate future to be reminded of that, and to demand that we at least try to do things differently.

‘Drawing Lessons’ (after John Ruskin) begins with a man trying to focus, to attempt a still life of a pebble. Its concentration unspools gradually. This poem seems to speak to our attention as readers as much as it speaks to the attention required to draw well. Anyone who has tried that will know how hard it is. To really read a poem can take similar skill.

‘What Am I Seeing’ follows and underscores the concern with perception and depth. This is work that comes from slow attention, proper effort and commitment to understanding. This is not the poetry of the atomised who cannot think straight and do not know who they are anymore (as my recent poetry is).

Let the new era be the era of thinking straight or it will not be.

– Steve Hanson

Hong Kong Hangover

Peter Humphreys – Hong Kong Rocks (Proverse Hong Kong, 2019)

Strange times in the vertical city. Reality continues to leapfrog literature.

Peter Humphreys’ Hong Kong Rocks is set in an alternative version of that troubled city where, rather than the massive crackdown currently being pushed by Beijing, the CCP are instead being more subtle, and only targeting expats.

The novel follows a rag-tag group of deadbeat Brits. Four middle aged men living on booze and regret. The four are shepherded along by their long-suffering pub landlord, Jeanie, who is a pro-democracy activist.

The narrative begins with a picture of expat life on HK. Paul tries to teach English to stroppy kids. Nick is bullied by bankers in his running club, “Pure Hash”. While Fenton, relic of Empire, has holed up in his compound, waiting for one last showdown with the commies.

Our expats receive their expulsion orders and a death swiftly follows.

From here we are led into the murky world of spies and counter-spies, Triads and White Lotus cults, the pro-democracy movement and the post-democratic radicals of Occupy. Everyone is in everyone else’s business. In contrast to this, the shiftless expat life is revealed as fragile, endangered.

The novel does an excellent job of taking us from the apolitical centre of this city of commerce, into its highly politicised underworld. It is a touch overwritten in parts, but moves along apace; especially once the action kicks in. More than anything, you come to really feel for the characters.

Published by Proverse Hong Kong – a small publisher well-worth supporting – this is a fun book, a good holiday read, and, we hope, not a prediction of worse things to come in the fragrant harbour.

– Joe Darlington

Ripe and relevant

Uncle’s Dream – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Alma Books)

Not many authors have blurb from Nietzsche and Camus. Perhaps no other authors have. Dostoyevsky does.

Uncle’s Dream is considered a minor work. Dostoyevsky had just spent time exiled in Siberia and then in the provincial doldrums of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

Uncle’s Dream sets provincial ruthlessness and stupidity as its target. Dostoyevsky’s exile work proper comes later though, in The House of The Dead.

This is a funny book essentially written for cash, intended to start Dosteyevsky on the long road back to literature. This edition carries a new translation by Roger Cockrell. It is a direct and lively reading.

The tale begins as a kind of shaggy dog story. We meet Maria Moskalyova. She is a socialite and savage, sharp elbower. Her husband was highly privileged but also useless, and is now sidelined, put away in the countryside.

This is the pre-revolutionary world in which the totally incompetent rule. We meet the Prince with a cork leg, false beard and hair and a glass eye. He was ‘some kind of corpse on springs’, but covered in the latest high fashion. Morning coat, powder and wig. Perfumed and pomaded. A sort of surviving Rolling Stone of his time.

His brain, affected from years of being an idle fop, stutters out words in chunks. He begins to discuss his haemorrhoids at a party – which in Viz terms means his ‘arsegrapes are up’. He is stopped mid-flow. He is one of the figures Georg Grosz drew and painted, only before he turns up sixty years on in Berlin, bits of him left behind in a chateau full of trench mud.

The moment a discussion arises around whether the area has had cholera – ‘the plague’ – or not seems loaded in this moment. But the book speaks to our times at many points.

Maria Moskalyova pushes for her beautiful daughter to marry the crumbling prince. We see it in our time. We see it in Melania Trump in a way I suppose. Maria Moskalyova derides Shakespeare and young men who fill their heads with his works.

Most interestingly, Maria avoids Shakespearean tragedy by getting her way through thick and thin. Her daughter is a tragedy, but Maria escapes cosmic justice in any and all forms that might visit her. Many of the Moskalyovas of the world do. This is the hard modernist spike in a perhaps softer novel.

This might be a minor work, but it is very far from the failure Dostoyevsky assumed it to be. The Prince is withering about people around him infected by some ‘new idea or other’. Here comes the age of revolution. The Prince derides a servant who looks like he might be incubating great philosophy, by Kant, or someone like that.

This was the age in which ideas displaced the ‘corpses on springs’ who ran the world. Let us have a whole new era of that please.

The spiteful hypocrites and gossips are recognisable and real. If nothing else, this book is ripe to be updated for 2020, perhaps as a film. I can see a man whose expensive cosmetic surgery is falling apart, and his hangers-on, perhaps some failing and desperate boomers who lost nearly all of it in a tech bubble. It actually played in theatres later, most notably in the Soviet era. It’s funny and sharp.

Here is a great window onto our world of greedy, pushy, power-mad bastards, downloaded from Dostoyevsky’s time.

– Steve Hanson

Poetics and agonism

H.L. Hix – Counterclaims: Poets and Poetries, Talking Back (Dalkey Archive) 

H.L. Hix is a Professor of Philosophy and Creative Writing at the University of Wyoming. He put this book together. He began by sending two well-known comments on poetry to lots of contemporary poets. The comments are Adorno’s ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ and Auden’s ‘Poetry makes nothing happen.’

Adorno and Auden are both A names and so I secretly wonder if there’s a reader called something like Poets on Poetry which fell open at A, inspiring the whole project. We don’t find out and it doesn’t matter one bit.

The purpose is to begin another process beginning with ‘a’, namely agonism, which roughly means ‘to speak is to fight’, and Hix is inspired by Chantalle Mouffe’s book on agonism. The quotes are clearly pokes in the ribcage. First finger, second finger. Stab, jab.

The format is that Hix chooses something the poet has written before, there’s a floating bullet point and then the response to the quotes arrive.

There’s a lot of preamble about the structure of the book, about the demographics of the respondees and those who chose not to participate, and about Aspiration with a cap A and with a small a. I’m not too interested in all that, but I am very interested in Hix’s ‘Overture’ poem at the start of the book and in the responses themselves.

The Overture piece is incredibly powerful. ‘Meaning means form. Form means meaning’ it begins.

‘A poem’s closest sister need not be other poems.’ ‘Until we name past trauma, we are powerless to prevent future trauma.’ Feels very now. It is very now. The responses follow on from this overture.

Many of the responses do not mention the quotes and often do not seem to be responding to them at all. This does not matter one whit. The responses provide a directory of contemporary poets, many American, but not all, the great Robert Sheppard is included, for instance. Within that is a snapshot of poets talking about poetics. In this house of many mansions, each with many rooms, there are lots of feasts. This is a book for poets to live in. It now sits on my shelf next to Adrienne Rich’s Notebooks on Poetry and Politics ‘What Is Found There?’ The form works.

Here is my entry: Auden wrote his line in 1939 and Adorno in 1949, in exile. The two sentences bookend an incommensurable decade of horror across the world. It is not commented on, but it is all I seem to be able to think about.

Adorno’s ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’ was revised later. But when Adorno revised his statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

Poet Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz. She wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the events. When I write poetry my aim, in my own very small way, is the same. But this book gives us thousands of other reasons why, making it an invaluable volume for the practicing poet. In fact all practicing poets of any seriousness.

Both Adorno’s excessive negation and Auden’s listlessness are overcome, often without mentioning them. But it is so much bigger. This book, actually, provides a structural underpinning for a poetical symphony on the state of human life in the early 21st century. If we began again with Hix’s brilliant ‘Overture’ and then remixed the statements that followed into poetry, we might have something like an Iliad for our times.

Alternately, you could just open it at random and be knocked for six out of your poetical complacency. Either way it’s a win-win purchase we think.

– Steve Hanson 

Of Photography and Fetishism

Eliza Clark – Boy Parts (Influx Press, 2020)

We live under the shadow of faith. The great truths of Christianity are no longer recognised, while in countries like Britain the Church has been reduced to a minor religion, with no greater religion set to take its place. We are left to ponder: where is a world without guidance to find its meaning?

I am not normally a reader of these kinds of novels, but on being asked to review Eliza Clark’s new, rather risqué novel, Boy Parts, I feel that I have come to a better awareness of contemporary life and contemporary living; especially among the young.

The book is not religious, but it can teach us much about the spirit.

It is a first person narrative, like most novels are these days. We are no longer curious about God, and what an omniscient perspective may look like. Instead, we are always told the story from one perspective. In this case, a very warped perspective indeed: that of “fetish artist” Irena Sturges.

Sturges’ art consists of videos and photography depicting young, average looking, and often vulnerable young men, social outcasts, in erotic situations. She gains sexual pleasure from these photo shoots, and the resulting images are purchased online by a small but ardent group of (mostly homosexual) admirers.

Already we have a number of questions raised. What is art when there is no transcendent principle guiding it? What is sex when the sublimating institutions of marriage and childbearing are rejected?

In both cases we see an ever-growing, increasingly desperate hunger; a desire that can never be fulfilled, leaping always onward, onward to the next target. Sex grows progressively more violent and art grows progressively more sexual.

The collection of erotic images achieves what Freud might have labelled a “death drive”. The need to construct an oeuvre of work that might stand in for us once we pass on; a collection that we will never permit ourselves to complete, but instead will only add to, feeling it forever “nearly there but not quite”. We always want just one more.

Sturges reaches some very low moments in pursuit of her desires. There are a lot of drugs, and sex, some of it paedophilic, and violence which – like that other great purgative work American Psycho – is never quite certain or uncertain in its existence. It is never truly resolved.

Yet, in contrast to her peers, we see how Sturges’ artistic journey (or at least the Fine Art gloss that she puts on to her activities), lends her a stability and purpose that all those around her are lacking.

The narrative is framed by a forthcoming show at a fancy London gallery. Sturges curates her own life, narrating it through memories captured in photographs. Intentions pursued, captured, and left behind. Although – sadly – not a positive one, there is at least a journey here.

Her friends Flo and Frankie are instead shown to be wallowing in their own narcissism. Time passes and they follow popular trends, attending new parties and getting new hangovers, but with very little to show for it other than their brief pride in being “woke”.

The new woke movement, it goes without saying, is the natural endpoint of the reformation. A religion that is all duty and no reward; a Puritanism all the more ardent for having supplanted even God in its purity.

These characters, it also goes without saying, are all proven to be hypocrites.

Against a backdrop of atheists sadly wallowing in the more animalistic activities of human nature, Sturges’ artistic practice appears to be a vaguely defined attempt to create some kind of transcendent value. Her pictures, she tells herself, have meaning.

If anything, they are at least better than other artists’, most of whom are trying to do the same thing.

Yet, being only made through desire, Sturges’ art remains uncertain. Whether it is any good, worth devoting time to, whether it is even art at all, are all questions that linger and, slowly but surely, chip away at our confidence as readers, and her confidence as a character.

Now, a spoiler, although many of you will no doubt already know where all this is leading: in the end, Sturges finds that she cannot be sure of her own existence at all.

It is the same uncertainty that we find at all places and at all times. Although now, without the Church, many of our fellows are plunged into the darkness of a pre-Christian era. They are presented with no alternative to the rudderless wanderings of their own individual imaginations.

I believe that Eliza Clark has presented us with an excellent learning tool in Boy Parts. It is a work of consummate professionalism, excellent plotting and pacing, with utterly believable dialogue. Her characters can be monstrous, but their lives could quite easily be our lives. The book is a corrective.

But it is more than a corrective. It is a mirror. Life can be seen there in its most naked form. May the Lord in His Mercy clothe them.

– Demetrios Kanapka

From irony to what?

Hal Foster – What Comes After Farce? (Verso, 2020)

American art critic Hal Foster’s book title references Marx in the 18th Brumaire. Marx poked fun at the installation of a ludicrous fake Napoleon in France who played out in history ‘first as tragedy’ then ‘as farce’.

Foster – clearly referencing the terrifying fool in the White House – asks ‘what comes after farce?’

Of course we have our own buffoon in the top job here too, with a sick Grima Wormtongue in tow. In recent times, England has always been forwards about going backwards. Yes sir.

So, this book applies to the Disunited Queendom as well, and probably to all the countries currently saddled with ‘populist’ governments.

In a series of dazzling essays which display Foster’s rich understanding of semiotics, aesthetics and philosophy, we are taken through culture on a cliff edge, via its art and literature. Foster’s scholarship really roots the debate in art history.

Foster can take you through how meaning itself has changed over long epochs: The referent was uprooted by reification and divisions of labour in the modernist era, hence the abstracted modernist avant-garde. Postmodernity further alienates by re-embedding meaning itself as a priori reified but also ‘floating’, its context loose.

This is the cultural knot we are now in. Postmodernism fell apart as a subject around the millennium (I wrote a paper on this for the Journal of Critical Education Policy) but it has re-emerged as a kind of dark matter in post-truth and world leaders who denounce inconvenient data as fake news – at the same time as they often have news of unhealthy veracity produced.

How to escape this place? The advocacy, essentially, seems to be to move from deconstruction to reconstruction, the examples given include forensic architecture as documentary, and the work of Hito Steyerl.

A key moment is the citation of Bruno Latour, who advises a shift in the role of the critic to become that of enabler, provider of an arena of debate. Latour asks us to move from being the person who pulls the rug from under us – as with Derrida and deconstruction perhaps – to being the person who provides one. A rich carpet to debate on.

Latour’s advice dates from 2004 though and it tells me much about the times that Foster’s hopeful comments about universities as spaces of critical challenge already seem quite hopeless. Things are moving too fast to keep up with. Universities are on the edge of a crisis of model due to the sudden end of unlimited travel – and that in front of a UK government that actively wishes to close arts and humanities courses.

In fact Dominic Cummings has already identified Foster as the enemy. Here, without a doubt, is a man who discusses Lacan at dinner parties. Cummings’ disapproval is surely another strong reason to buy this book.

Foster mentions Eric Garner in a chokehold by an NYPD officer in 2014 uttering ‘I can’t breathe’. This reference is made before George Lloyd pleaded using the same words, to receive the same lack of compassion, and before the riots in America and the global Black Lives Matter upsurge. In this, there is a prescience, no matter how fast things are being made obsolete.

Foster’s comments on kitsch, grounded in the usual texts those who went to art school will know, Greenberg et al, seem all too relevant again as well. Britain’s default imaginary space still seems to be that of laughing goons such as Farage. Television acts as a sentimental steroid. We live in a mental Downton theme park, eyes glazed over as our bodies go through abject repeat patterns in an austere landscape. Fake memories of World War Two grip people like fever. The whole spectra of kitsch.

This book is extremely well-made, it is philosophically rich but disturbingly acute. My one worry is Foster’s continued psychological investment in the art world as it stands as the site of resistance to the rightwing, post-shame turn. Perhaps the real opposition can no longer come from middle class gallery goers. MRB eagerly awaits Will Davies’ next book on the death of liberal Britain. The hegemony has shifted to populism – and in this we all lose – but maybe this means that the critical culture that might make an actual difference cannot come from the old Guardian Guide circuits either.

Of course, there are a lot of great and powerful artists whom we might consider mainstream, but there is also a nauseating circuit of arse kissers with little cause or content. Foster describes an art world ‘torn between transgressive routine on the one side and ethical vigilance on the other.’

Foster doesn’t mean it to be, but that is a brilliant one-line take down of contemporary Circuit Art over the last twenty years.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: ‘only the Sleaford Mods can save us now.’

– Steve Hanson