2017 End of Year Review No.1

To cap off 2017, Manchester Review of Books contributors have written a ‘Top 5’ of things they have read over the year.

The brief was very open. This could be new books, or books they have just got around to, a 17th century manuscript, a strange fanzine, a newspaper article, or a mix of all of them.

I am going to write about five clusters of reading that have emerged over the year. I can see them, in little piles, from where I write, by empty coffee cups and notebooks. Here goes.

Cluster 1. The first version of A Book of the Broken Middle came out early in January 2017, so I put away the theology. However, I carried on reading around the 17th and 18th centuries. Peter Linebaugh (et al) The London Hanged, Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree (Verso) Christopher Hill and an anthology of writing from the Stuart time called Divine Right and Democracy (Penguin). Much of the latter was new to me.

This was a good place from which to begin Cluster 2, which includes Roberto Unger’s political trilogy (Verso). I personally disavow party-line orthodox Marxism completely for a kind of Marxism that focuses on structural conditions without fetishising them, or simply taking historical tropes – what Unger calls the ‘society as artifact’ – as their basis.

‘What is assembled now?’ is the question to ask, not ‘what did Lenin say?’ or which party might one align oneself with today. This might seem like post-Marxism, but actually it tallies with writers such as David Harvey, who I have also been re-reading.

Our time consists of what Unger describes as ‘…the tedious, degrading rhythm of history – with its long lulls of collective narcolepsy punctuated by violent revolutionary seizures.’

This, ultimately, is the thing we have not yet broken away from, despite the unwarranted leftist jubilation all around.

Unger is very sceptical of the social science tendency to revisit what he calls ‘frameworks’ as though they were neutral or transparent realities, or as models to be applied to any situation. One can see this happening in everyday discourse too, as 1917 is compared to 2017, for instance.

Unger’s response – he is so tentative that he calls it a ‘proto-theory’ rather than a theory – is what he calls ‘false necessity’. Unger’s work at the most basic level simply urges us to try something new.

We are at another conjunctural point in history in which we have a real opportunity to do that, but the left and right are rushing back to old dogmas and then rushing forward screaming them at each other without any space for examination. Nothing new will emerge from this. No great break in the old cycles is possible if this continues:

‘The stubborn, mysterious cycles represent a permanent insult to societies whose official culture claims to base fundamental social arrangements upon the wills of free and relatively equal citizens and rights holders rather than upon blind drift or coercive authority.’

I have become increasingly tired and irritated by writers such as Negri and Agamben over the last few years, writers who project revolution into the most unlikely places. Agamben tried it on with monasticism in the last one of his I read.

Owen Hatherley is another, capital ‘M’ Modernism is defended because, er, 1917. The left is losing its sense of negation, history is being described as a positive force – and tellingly, a positive force made by those who explain it.

The ‘degrading rhythm of history’ will perhaps reveal itself, but only if it is possible to break through this collective narcolepsy. Unger provides food for thought along these lines. I will add to this a return to André Gorz, who is also in Cluster 2.

Of course, the rise of fascism is the real problem. Next to this, leftwing naivete is almost irrelevant. This brings me to Cluster 3. I have been doing most of my thinking along these lines by re-reading Seize the Time by Bobby Seale (Arrow) Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver (Panther) and Black Skin, White Masks by Fanon (Grove Press).

For a direct Brexit context I have gone back to Roger Hewitt’s brilliant, troubling, White Backlash (Cambridge). Contested narratives about the working classes being responsible for the Brexit vote make more sense with this book to ground the current false consciousness in earlier, similar sentiments.

I have also gone back to Paul Gilroy’s work on the 1980s riots in Britain that centred on issues of policing and race. It is important to side with his critiques of leftwing perspectives which fail to break out of their trance-like obsession with capitalism.

Gilroy’s critique of the ‘interpretative frame’ is crucial to revisit now, and it tallies in some ways with what Unger has written. The ‘interpretative frame’ reproduces pathologising criminal representations of black youth, but it also lacks any complexity, for instance, in the 1980s ‘it couldn’t imagine that victims of racism might be racist themselves.’ Going back to Cleaver and Seale gives you the historical and ethical grey zones too.

Again, we are losing our sense of negation if we lose our ability to hold contradictions such as these in our analysis. The ‘interpretative frame’ changes, as does racism, morphing into newer, more virulent strains, like a kind of cultural super-flu. The interpretative frame needs constant checking.

Revisiting Gilroy’s ‘The Myth of Black Criminality’, published in The Socialist Register in 1982, a year after the 1981 riots in Britain, is crucial to this work of reframing.

Gilroy described the ‘potent imagery of youthful black criminals stalking derelict inner-city streets where the law-abiding are afraid to walk after sunset’ and how this ‘has been fundamental to the popularisation of increasingly repressive criminal justice and welfare state policies.’

We can now add to this the rightwing spectre of ‘the radicalised’, the lurking jihadi, an explosive body belt strapped to him at all times. One way in which the last decade presents only difference and blinding glare is in the evidence of white testimonies to radicalisation as almost a form of leisure, almost as a form of cultural capital, and on the opposite side of the break of ‘radicalisation’ as an imposed badge of stigma for non-white subjects. Language, as Raymond Williams knew, is important to weigh.

One can see the left taking radicalisation at face value in places, rather than seeing it as a tiny hard core of horrible truth, with a vast affective cloud around it. Gilroy explains that:

‘At best, a lingering environmentalism makes a causal link between crime and unemployment or the deterioration of the inner-cities. At worst, discussion of crime becomes subsumed by the idea that the rule of law, and therefore the Nation itself, is somehow under attack.’

In 1982 this meant the constructed tabloid of black criminality, an ‘enemy within’ to add to the other internal enemies of trade unionism and socialism. Now, and in 2011 this means an enemy within plugged into an enemy without, as well as the threat of an enemy without, which in 1982 was the IRA, rather than Isis.

It is important to see this in terms of discourses that affect policies and policing and it is as important to note the weakness of leftwing analysis in 2017, as it was in 1982:

‘The left’s failure to appreciate how the racism of slump and crisis is different from the racism of boom and commonwealth, has meant that they have not grasped how notions of black criminality have been instrumental in washing the discourse of the nation as white as snow and preparing the way for repatriation.’ 

And now, of course, Brexit. In 1982 John Lea, Ian Taylor and Jock Young focused on the police and the far right, missing, because it was outside the sphere of their habitus, the systematic racial harassment. We must begin to think through fascism in Britain via media discourses of radicalisation, Tottenham Man Dem, 2011 and the most excluded and stigmatised, rather than through campus factionalism and left sectarianism. The left seems to have forgotten that the prime targets of fascists globally are the ethnic other, and we have seen spikes in anti-muslim sentiment and anti-semitism. Of course the fascists want rid of communism too, but most of the left merely fantasise about being communist in the first place, and then fantasise about opposing fascism.

What all of this means for the purpose of this article, is that after starting the year with the rag end of my reading for my last book, all of this new reading, starting with Unger, is beginning to add up to something I will commit to paper.

I have also started all sorts of things that I have thrown aside. I tend to gut books first these days, then go back and read them fully if I think I really should.

Because of this, I always have books around that I can pick up if I discard something. This brings me to Cluster 4, poetry. Well-known and not, old favourites and new to me: John Ashbery, Richard Barrett, Pete Brown, Allen Ginsberg, Osip Mandelstam, Drew Milne, Jeff Nuttall, Claire Potter, Adrian Slatcher, Michael Symmons Roberts and Nelly Sachs.

I have also explored Celan, Miroslav Holub, Mayakovsky and Pound much further than before, but they were explorations, rather than readings.

Cluster 5. Books on art, including the Monuments Are Not To Be Trusted catalogue from Nottingham Contemporary, various things by John Roberts, books on postcards and postcard collecting, and a really big pile of Viz.

– Steve Hanson

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Trials and Tribulations

James Miller – UnAmerican Activities (Dodo Ink)

Not every book can be perfect. The prologue and epilogue of this one, for example, are absolutely obnoxious and will ruin your reading experience, if not your whole day. Thankfully, books aren’t sacred either. Upon first purchasing a copy of UnAmerican Activities I recommend tearing these pages out and burning them. Congratulations, you are now left with a brilliant book.

UnAmerican Activities is a series of short stories which, as the book progresses, become tantalisingly close to a novel, before once again dissipating into tall tales. Their subject is America, the dark side of Americana, and, in particular, that dark side as it appears to a writer from London, England. It is a romantic ballad of trailer parks and badlands, or evangelists and good ol’ boys, seedy motels, crack and conspiracies. It’s B-movie America, and who doesn’t love a good B-Movie?

The first stories, with catchy titles like “Eat my Face” and “Exploding Zombie Cock”, establish a postlapsarian nation where all are sinners and there are no good intentions. The characters border on caricature but, as in Fielding, their lack of moral qualms is what makes them compelling. These stories are punchy. No-one’s wasting time. Everyone acts. Into this mix, Miller pours movie monsters, and then the story really gets moving.

The best part of UnAmerican Activities is the monsters. Miller’s monsters really deserve the name. Of all the movies, books and games of recent years to be about monsters, so many have been metaphors for something, or sub-Frankenstinian exercises in sympathy for the outsider, that to encounter real monsters – brutal, terrifying, evil – is refreshing.

Miller knows how to write them too. I found myself asking at a Halloween party this year, “-but are vampires really scary?” Miller’s vampires haunt the imagination. The second half of the book features an extended arc with Nephilim, vampire hunters, occult plagues and ancient evils uncovered in the desert. There is a real sense of danger; of something dark at the heart of a nation already tearing itself apart. “The Abomination of Desolation”, above all, is an exercise in sustained tension which could rival anything by Stephen King.

The book is sparing in its use of hero characters, with only two innocents among its expansive cast. Abraham Helsing, the cheery Christian bounty hunter who tracks vampires on the side, and Esther Daniels, a teen writer with loopy survivalist parents, provide our only respite from an unremittingly bleak panorama. Their presence provides the contrast the narrative needs. They help us to discern the merely weak and self-deluding humans from the truly evil monsters.

It is for this reason that, perhaps against Miller’s intention, I find UnAmerican Activities to be a truly American, morally righteous set of parables. It makes me look back to recent novels like The Girl With All The Gifts (2014) which, in a fever of zombie-relativism, finds a happy ending in the total destruction of mankind. The author, M.R. Carey, implies this is deserved as humans weren’t tolerant enough to coexist with flesh eating monsters. In Miller’s world, by contrast, when you give yourself up to dark powers, bad things happen. At times the writing in UnAmerican Activities may appear nihilistic, but there’s some old time religion hidden in its heart that is extremely refreshing.

This isn’t to say that UnAmerican Activities is purely a horror book. It breaks enough genre conventions and rings enough lit crit bells that I would hope it appeals to a discerning readership as well. It deserves to be widely read. Every story is tightly plotted, the prose is controlled and well-paced, while the publishers – DoDo Ink – have presented the work beautifully. I would highly recommend reading it… but only if you start at page 17. I can’t get over that implied author. James Miller, I hope it aint you.

– Joe Darlington 

Ten Years on Trial

Stuart Elden – Foucault’s Last Decade (Polity)

Stuart Elden is an outstanding academic and a great writer, combining a high degree of scrupulousness in research with an accessible and assured style. Foucault always seems to arrive obscured by a fog of sensation, stories of saunas and acid trips, self-mutilation and other ‘excesses’.

But this holds a mirror up to everything else, rather than telling us much about Foucault. It tells us that we live in an age in which information will fly with spectacle and sensation or it will dive below the altitude of detection.

There is gladly none of this here and you can read The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller if you want that.

Elden begins with one brief paragraph of relevant biography before moving on to The Work. He tells us that in 1974 Foucault finished Discipline and Punish and on the very same day he began the History of Sexuality, Volume One. In 1984 he was dead.

In those ten years there was a huge shift, a large amount of new beginnings and, because of Foucault’s death, a lot of loose ends. Elden works meticulously and fascinatingly through these. His ability to keep such arcana within a highly engaging narrative is at times quite miraculous.

He assesses the work on sexuality and the work on power. There are suggestive glimpses of the way the three volume History of Sexuality might have been structured if Foucault hadn’t been taken so early. The first volume sets out a stall that largely remains in the first volume.

In doing this, Elden takes care to outline and negotiate a major difficulty of Foucault scholarship: no work not delivered in his lifetime was supposed to be published after his death. Some liberties have been taken with this dictat, issued by Foucault himself in a letter in lieu of a will.

But the pieces of work that fall between the published and not, the things that were clearly intended for a public, eventually, are the most fascinating. I read the work on the sealed letters from the king – the lettre de cachet – dictats of death and marriage handed out, and how Foucault sees in these the seething resentments from below to be granted agency.

The sovereign is both despotic and a kind of overflow mechanism here, a steam pipe letting out excess heat. I think of neighbours ratting on each other in Soviet pressure cookers. The archival discourse analysis was worked on by two successive research assistants, some of it was published but much of it not.

I then read about the work on dreams and their purposes in Greek and Roman familial structures and I think ‘I could be convinced by this thesis, or not’. Elden’s strength is to let the facts of Foucault’s unfinished work speak, rather than to present ideology desperately and precariously held aloft with a teetering pile of partly arbitrary data.

This is therefore a very Foucauldian take on Foucault and Elden is confident enough to not need to make easy capital out of his method. He doesn’t try to convince you, this book is, like Foucault’s best work, a blueprint for a possible set of tools.

Foucault’s work often just describes. It lets whole condensations of description create ‘the picture’. He does not paint. Nor does Elden. This is not to say that there is some sort of objective science here, or that language can completely flee ideology and metaphysics, but this way of working at least protrudes some way out of the cosmic slop.

This book also gives us glimpses of the Foucault that gives the lie to the idea that he existed completely contra-Marx, or that he was a kind of prototype neoconservative. The sense that Foucault saw the horrible intensification of power everywhere is clear.

Elden draws on the lectures at the College de France and having audited many of them myself a very different sense of Foucault’s take on power flashes up at times.

Again though, Elden is careful to add that Foucault himself was largely dismissive of these lectures. But the sense is there, that despotic individual power and its collusive, insane networks are related and this definitely does not mean that power is everywhere and nowhere, as a neoliberal corporate business management guide might try to suggest, and many crude interpreters believe.

This is important to revisit now, because there is a turn to a Marxism under way that also flees from the relativism of postmodernism and this Foucault is needed to clear away those blocks of doxa. Of course, because the adherents are a priori anti-Foucault this will be dismissed a priori.

There is a sick ouroboros here. Much in the same way, the exploding of common sense delivered by psychoanalysis was (and still is) often dismissed by the same common sense that came under attack by the falling shells that ripped it asunder.

That the revelations about repressed sexual and other drives are also buried by the same repressive processes that are being revealed is no coincidence. Something similar is going on in the current theoretical disavowals and neophilosophical reifications.

To critique structuralism and its badly named ‘post-‘ is one quite laudable thing, to dismiss it completely and replace it with simplistic dogma another barbarism altogether.

In human affairs, or to be more precise, in ‘politics’, all of this is probably inevitable, but the loss of any sense of meaning outside or between the religious structures of philosophical dogmas is no less sad because of that probable inevitability. In this sense, Elden assesses Foucault in a way Foucault would admire. He sees his ouvre as in process, rather than as a fixed slab with a final set of meanings.

I am not surprised that postmodernity and the whole neoliberal settlement of ‘the end of history’ is being set upon and ripped up with glee. Postmodernism always sat nicely on one of the larger credit bubbles of western capitalism’s history. If anything, it is amazing that it has taken ten years since 2008 to arrive at this point.

It is too disturbing to live in a permanently deracinated present, with no stable future or past. But the excessively heavy futures of the past are being remade with every tear. What is de-assembling now will soon turn into a recognisable Doxa.

To put it crudely, postmodernism is – I refuse to tense it past yet – absolute shit, but fleeing to a constructed opposite gives no guarantee whatsoever of getting out of the philosophical merde. But it is exactly this universal message that Foucault delivered and we are better off with it.

To say we have arrived at a post-relative time – and many on the left are now saying it – is to erase the arrival itself, an arrival that eats the stability of ‘being there’. It wasn’t like this in the past and it won’t be like this in the future, so nobody can tell you the future is settled, final, inevitable or perfect when you get there.

To say this doesn’t mean one is giving up on the idea that some periods are more brutal than others, or that there are despots and then there are saints.

Perhaps the one thing to take with us, then, is the work of the man who showed us how to identify the edges and sutures of those historical corpses. Elden’s study gives us the seams of Foucault’s final and perhaps most intense phase.

This is a time when the discourses are being refigured and they always are the most interesting times to examine, whether you are Foucauldian or a Marxist, and I still count myself among the latter.

Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

Miranda Doyle – A Book of Untruths: A Memoir (Faber & Faber 2017)

Miranda Doyle’s ‘A Book of Untruths’ is subtitled ‘A Memoir’. In many ways, it shares key characteristics with this familiar genre – it begins in childhood and progresses through school and early adulthood (Doyle’s accounts of her miserable schooldays, by themselves, make a valuable contribution to a body of work on the privations of boarding school; one of the most notable comparisons it invites for me is Roald Dahl’s classic memoir ‘Boy’).

It explores fractious family relationships and issues such as adoption, infidelity, illness, grief and divorce, alongside bigger issues of gender, power, identity and class. It questions the role of institutions such as the church, schools and marriage in our lives, and the place of social mores and prejudices in perpetuating their more negative elements.

It takes skill to craft something new and relevant out of familiar and universal experiences such as these, but Doyle’s memoir had me hooked from start to finish.

Her family – like all families – is dysfunctional in its own unique way, but Doyle’s words place us there, in her memories and experiences. Powerful emotional responses to fear, indignity and injustice resonate through the pages, still as strongly felt as decades ago when they occurred. Richly observed period details of 1960s and 1970s Britain, together with family photographs, further serve to bring Doyle’s words to life.

Where ‘A Book of Untruths’ diverges from the conventional memoir is in recurrent sections analysing what it means to tell our life story, incorporating aspects of psychology, science, social research and history, which punctuate and illuminate the main narrative.

Doyle raises questions about what it means to tell the truth about ourselves, our past, and our relationships with those in it – truths which, we are reminded, often depend on who is doing the telling, and who is listening. In writing her perspective on these events, it seems like Doyle is seeking to understand the motivations of those people who surround and influence us from an early age, those relationships and experiences that shape us and turn us into who we are, and how our thoughts and actions live on through others’ perceptions and memoires of us once we are gone.

Of course, the book isn’t just a memoir of Doyle; it tells the stories of her parents and her siblings, too (or Doyle’s version of them) – how could it not?

One of the aspects of the book that both gave me a jolt, and resonated with me the most, was Doyle’s matter-of-fact, unflinching descriptions of sexual assault, the positions of influence held by the men who perpetrated them, and the situations in which they came to take place.

I read ‘A Book of Untruths’ some months ago, yet in these times, when the population is only just beginning to wake up to the prevalence of harassment and abuse as part of women’s everyday lives, Doyle’s experiences, and the ways in which she has told, contextualised and reacted to them, have often returned to my thoughts.

‘A Book of Untruths’ shows that there is scope yet for the rediscovery and development of an old form, the memoir. For those whose interest is piqued as much as mine was, there is also a dedicated website (www.bookofuntruths.com) to further explore the series of ‘lies’ around which the book is structured.

– Natalie Bradbury

Shake it Like a…

Peter Buse – The Camera Does the Rest, How Polaroid Changed Photography (University of Chicago Press)

‘Every photographic print is a material object, but a Polaroid is somehow more so’. Such is the rationale for Peter Buse’s latest book; a study in the cultural history of Polaroids.

Even the term, ‘Polaroids’, distinguishes the products of this iconic company from other images (whether on film or digital). One wouldn’t refer to a cherished Fuji, or a secret stash of intimate Kodaks. Polaroids are something different.

At the heart of Buse’s study is the quintessential Polaroid, or lack of one. Rather, each generation experiences the very concept of the Polaroid anew. The first Polaroid film, released in the 1940s, introduced the world to automatically developing images and for a short while represented a luxury item. As Polaroid developed new technologies this luxury image was retained for its initial releases.

Land cameras found their way into the hands of movie stars, U.S. Presidents and, most influentially, Ansel Adams.

The world’s first inexpensive ‘instant camera’, the Polaroid Swinger, appeared in the 1960s. As the process produced no negative from which to make copies, and made darkroom skills redundant, the world of professional photography was immediately sceptical. Instead the Polaroid marketing department emphasised the fun of photography, targeting young women in particular as a market alienated by the technophile photographic elite.

The release of the SX-70 consolidated the company’s reputation for making party cameras. The SX-70 introduced the automated roller, pushing the photograph out directly towards the photographed. Rather than the private pursuit of the photographer, Buse argues, Polaroid’s cameras after the SX-70 turned photography into a social activity, a special event, something that’s fun to do, something to break the ice; a common practice being to give the photo to the sitter rather than have the taker keep them for themselves.

Contra-Sontag, Buse argues the memorial value of these photographs is a secondary characteristic. Polaroids were hardly Barthes’ memento mori, they were Instagram before the internet. The mythology of the Polaroid supports this interpretation and, according to Buse, the mythology is indeed largely mythical.

Other than the asymmetrical white borders (the bottom border being larger to house the ‘bubble’ of chemicals necessary for instant developing) the rest of Polaroid’s supposedly unique qualities were either untrue or shared with their competitors.

‘The film quality was terrible but more loveable as a result’, is a common presumption, ‘the image was wet and needed to be shaken dry or stuck under an armpit, that the colours of the film were highly saturated, and of course, that the images soon faded away’. In fact, a scientific comparison found Polaroids to be of comparable image quality with competing non-instant film, and they had similar levels of saturation.

Salesmen were so frustrated by the fading myth that they’d cellotape a Polaroid onto a window directly facing the sun and stick a Kodak photo next to it. Within a week this would allow their clients to compare the fading themselves, with Kodak always fading faster.

The myth of fading can be attributed to the Polaroid’s reputation for fun, ie/ a lack of seriousness and a lack of permanence. As much as this reputation was fostered by the company there was also a simultaneous effort to win over the world of high art.

Ansel Adams was part of this movement; acting as a consultant to the company from 1961. His work in Polaroid appeared regularly in avant garde magazines like Aperture along with essays on the pedagogical potential of instant film. Polaroid cameras might be used for fun, these essays argued, but they were far from being mere toys.

Dr David Land, the famed inventor behind Polaroid, shared these aspirations, albeit with a populist’s focus on showmanship. Buse returns to the enigmatic Land on a number of occasions, most compellingly when discussing his annual general meeting appearances. Buse gives the impression of Land as a proto-Steve Jobs, lecturing his engineers, sales teams and investors alike on colour theory and Bergsonian philosophy between product releases.

‘In 1971’ Buse describes, ‘Land stood on stage and pulled a closed SX-70 prototype camera out of his suitcoat and showed it to the audience without explaining what it was except to suggest that [it] would be disclosed at some future date’.

By the 1980s the Polaroid AGM came complete with circus animals, live musicians and, in 1986, a building-sized replica of the Spectra System camera: The Camera Does the Rest is filled with fascinating insights like these. It provides a thorough overview of Polaroid’s history without the wearying detail which might come of a comprehensive study. It contains vital theoretical insights not only about photography but about the history of technology, memory and nostalgia. It is compelling written, an entertaining read and a case study in how to do cultural studies properly.

As a reader from the post-Polaroid generation I was particularly interested in the section regarding contemporary hipsterdom’s relationship with Polaroid. The Impossible Project, who now manufacture Polaroid-eque film for sale online, are often considered to be pandering to nostalgia or else harbouring an obtuse attachment to obsolete technology.

Especially perplexing are those too young to have purchased film from Polaroid, who ceased production in 2008, and yet purchase replica film today at around $3 a photo. Polaroid’s materiality, Buse argues, has come to signify materiality itself. And materiality, in an era of the all-pervasive digital, is now a valuable commodity.

Misguided or not, the book makes one thing is clear; these neo-Polaroids are simply the next iteration of a form which has traversed the artistic, the popular and occasionally the seedy on its journey to becoming iconic.

– Joe Darlington