Words at the Workhouse

Paul Henry – The Glass Aisle (Seren, 2018)

I have not been back to the countryside for quite some time. Yet I live there. My imagination dwells in the woodlands. I wonder if this is an English condition.

Paul Henry’s new collection of poems, The Glass Aisle, displays a similar, landscape-bound, Welsh condition. They are poems about music and family and time which always pull back to the land, the trees and the rocky beaches. A veteran poet, Henry’s crisp verse feels like a monument. It is a solid thing, an achievement in itself, which marks still greater things gone quiet.

Henry combines the modernist image with a ruminative range of tones. Poems which leap to mind are ‘Brown Helen Reclining’, ‘Not Stopping’ and ‘Craiglais’. Each in their own way locate that magical space between vision and language that defines great Western poetry. Subject and object combine to create symbol.

The greatest poem of the collection is undoubtedly ‘The Glass Aisle’ itself. The titular image is of a canal in mid-winter. The frozen strip runs beside an old workhouse where the tenant’s names still hang in the air;

Will Solsbury, Miner, Somerset

Lizzie Lewis, Pauper, Llanelli…

From the start we find this old building caught up, tangled between modernity, history and the natural world. Our symbol is the stuck technician:

The line to the old workhouse is down.

The telegraph pole is caged in a tree,

The engineer wedged like a sacrifice

Inside the branch’s lattice-work.

From his height he can only hear the names of the dead, whispering from the workhouse, as the telephone line, dead also, refuses to speak.

There is an opacity to these set of images that keep them from becoming metaphor. To explain the poetry away you would have to bend and break it, or else you too will end up tangled in its tight-woven branches. Instead, the lines resonate. The words are loaded with a weight of symbolism that draws us down and away from clear explanations.

‘John Moonlight,’ the speaker later calls, ‘your name is fading from its bench’. Throughout the collection Henry calls out in direct address, sometimes to friends and sometimes, as here, to once living people he never knew. This is perhaps the bardic tradition speaking through Henry. The poet calls out to his community, weaving their names and words into the lattice of history…

John, if I may, whose laughter

Was writ in air,

Whose moment the sun engraves,

Who loved this view,

Something of your ecstasy survives.

The injection of words Henry has found in the world to the flow of words he conjures from the imagination adds life, also, to his reflections. The real world keeps him moving, stirs his energies. Again, this is a modernist lesson grafted on an older stem: the paths that Wordsworth reflected upon in tranquillity are walked by Henry in a flaneuriste mode.

Yet the lessons are maybe the same…

I cannot tell an owl

From a name on the wind,

The voices in the wire

From the voices in the leaves.

If poetry has a purpose, it is perhaps to show us once again those things we know so intimately. Our woods, our past, they keep speaking. The poet makes us new words for old music, or new music for old words. I feel like Paul Henry has achieved that here. These poems are a reconciliation.

– Joe Darlington


The Folk folk

Peggy Seeger – First Time Ever: A Memoir (Faber & Faber)

A doe-eyed child holds a harmonica to their lips with two pudgy hands. A sombre looking man sits stiffly on a chair situated behind the child. He appears to be mid-strum of the guitar that he grasps. A lady clutching a dulcimer reclines on a couch positioned to the left of the man. The final figure in the black and white photograph is a mischievous looking boy wearing a beret. He is perched atop a wooden cabinet set at the centre-back of the gathering. His fingers are pressed to his lips. Perhaps they conceal a tiny instrument. Or perhaps he is biting his nails.

The doe-eyed child depicted in the image is celebrated folk singer and songwriter Peggy Seeger, aged two years old. The photograph, dated circa 1937, is the first photograph on the inserts of Seeger’s memoir First Time Ever.

Seeger’s childhood, she writes, was ‘steeped in music’.

The lady reclining in the image is Seeger’s mother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. The sombre looking man is Seeger’s father, the ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger. The little boy is Mike Seeger who will grow up to be a folk musician.

Section one of First Time Ever consists of Seeger’s whimsical, entertaining reminiscences of her early years in Chevy Chase, New York.

She describes one spring afternoon during which she was instructed by visitor Jackson Pollock to run across a canvas laid out on her front lawn. Her bare feet were first dipped in paint.

The canvas, Seeger believes, was later discarded.

Seeger writes in the foreword to ‘First Time Ever’ that her memoir is intended as a record of ‘what I think I was, what I believe I am’. Are such musings of interest to the reader?

Indeed they are.

Seeger, labelled ‘voice of experience’ in a profile by The Guardian writer Colin Irwin, is an excellent raconteur.

She recalls, for instance, her seasickness on a steamship voyage across the Atlantic, ‘There was a symphony of misery: tuba squawks of wood scraping wood, drum-drone of the engine, cello pizzicatos as dropped water bottles hit walls…’

Seeger describes milling about a theatre backroom shortly after moving to London in 1956. She spies, for the first time, her future musical and romantic partner the folk singer and songwriter Ewan Macoll. She remembers ‘his hairy, fat, naked belly poking out… The filthy lid of a stovepipe hat aslant like a garbage can’.

Seeger and Macoll’s romantic partnership is the source of much emotional turmoil detailed by Seeger in the memoir.

Their musical partnership was very productive. They wrote and recorded music prodigiously. Together with producer Charles Parker they created the acclaimed BBC radio series The Radio Ballads in the late 1950s.

Through the late 1950s and early 1960s they were regular players at The Ballad and Blues Club in London. Partly at the behest of an exasperated Seeger, a musical policy named The Policy was instituted at the venue. Performers were only permitted to play songs which came from their own cultural background.

Writer Rob Young refers to the Club as a ‘petty dictatorship, a microcosm of imagined musical purity and authenticity’’ in an article on English folk clubs published on The Guardian website.

Seeger makes an impassioned and heavily italicised defence of The Policy against accusations of snobbery in ‘First Time Ever’. She begins, ‘East London vowels don’t really fit with Lead Belly’.

Seeger was aged 83 the year the memoir was published. In a string of ominously titled closing chapters (‘Slow Express to Eternity’, ‘Last Time Ever’) she describes in a jovial tone the illnesses that have beset her in recent years.

‘Frequent, lengthy, audible, malodorous and dense beyond belief,’ she writes of her ‘gaseous emanations’.

Seeger presently lives in Oxford. She is married to folk singer Irene Pyper-Scott. She continues to perform music and she is a passionate social activist.

The most recently dated video of Seeger on Youtube is a clip from the January 2017 edition of the current affairs television programme ‘That’s Oxfordshire’.

Under stark studio lighting Seeger does battle with Oxford City Councillor Bob Price on the subject of a recently demolished Oxford swimming pool.

Seeger gives a formidable performance.

– Abby Kearney

Mapping the Conjuncture

Various – Stuart Hall, Conversations, Projects and Legacies (Goldsmiths Press)

John Akomfrah’s wonderful Stuart Hall Project endearingly shows how in love with the music of Miles Davis Stuart Hall was.

It isn’t a facile part of Hall’s biography, this. Think about it: Miles Davis is always identifiably ‘Miles’, during The Birth of the Cool period, in the fusion cauldron of Bitches Brew and Get Up With It, and playing ‘Time After Time’ in the 1980s. Miles Davis both reacted to and shaped the music of each period he lived through.

Similarly, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through. In Britain, yes – although a diasporic Britain few could even see at the start of the New Left project – and via journal articles, books and teaching, rather than through music.

Equally, the archive Hall leaves us is as essential to take forward as that of Miles Davis, and as difficult to match, let alone better. The purpose of this book is a retrospective celebration of Hall’s work, coming out of the proceedings of the celebratory conference at Goldsmiths after Stuart Hall’s death.

Some of these articles were written to be spoken at that event, and that purpose juts out of the text a little. Some of the material has also been well-covered elsewhere, Hall’s relationship with the British new left for instance, but the best material here explains how the written work of Stuart Hall can be used in the moment we are in to allow us to diagnose it and try to do something about it. For that alone this book is essential.

This book is organised into sections: Part One, Cultural Studies, Multiple Legacies; Part Two, the Politics of Conjuncture; Part Three, Identities and the Redefinition of Politics; Part Four, Policy, Practice and Creativity; Part Five, the International Expansion and Extension of Cultural Studies and Part Six, the Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis.

Paul’s widow Catherine provides the Afterword and there is an engaging set of introductions.

The first set of essays frame the context to an extent. James Curran, the great media theorist, explores Stuart Hall’s early work and shows how wilfully neglected it has been, as though all writers have to have some kind of initial period of development, which is always a priori to be dismissed, before we get round to the ‘serious later work’, it is not the case with Stuart Hall. Like Miles Davis, Hall was on it all the way through.

Part Two is the richest section in terms of the immediate present and future. The politics of conjuncture are precisely the things we need to revisit now, in 2018. John Clark’s analysis of Hall’s conjunctural methods contains precisely the suggestion that we turn back to them now.

But now we have an academic milieu which has drifted very far from this kind of work. We have, on the one hand, macro big data surveys grounded in a kind of neo-Kantianism, often instrumentalised work, and on the other hand the frayed remains of the erroneously named ‘post-structuralism’; the infra-analysis of cultural texts which seem to be sealed, which seem not to emerge from the real world, and I use the term ‘real’ in a general sociological sense here.

For Clarke and others, conjunctural analysis is difficult and requires collaboration, it depends ‘on the building and sustenance of various forms of collaboration’, which ‘were at the heart of the CCCS project’. It is, then, completely at odds with the individualistic and careerist trajectory of the neoliberal university and in it we might find a negation and way out of that impasse too.

Conjunctural analysis contains the need to ‘resist the temptations of various forms of lazy theoretical reductionism’, whether ‘in the modes of fundamentalist Marxism or technological determinism’, and to avoid falling ‘into the trap of believing that everything is necessarily predetermined’ and ‘recognise that our task is also to identify and pursue the specific forms of marginal, residual and emergent cultures’.

This last need of course emerges from Stuart’s friend the late Raymond Williams. Conjunctural analysis also tallies with some things in Jameson – cognitive mapping for instance – and in Neil Smith, David Harvey et al.

But this is Marxist analysis without the blinkers, as much as that is ever possible. It doesn’t contain the religious belief, nor the comfort of finding ‘out there’ the signs we are looking for, but it can show us what is assembled and where the tensions and contradictions lie.

Clarke argues that conjunctural analysis presents ‘the exact opposite of the dominant modalities produced by the contemporary pressures of academic institutional life.’ Pressures that ‘continually induce competitive forms of academic careerism, characteristically involving forms of self-promotion’, via which people maintain positions and progress.

Therefore ‘individuals must claim to have made ever more exciting and definitive intellectual breakthroughs’. We can see the arrogant new orthodoxies being hastily pushed through conferences now, ‘Metamodernism’, ‘the new depthiness’, both of which are not just ‘meta’ but entirely orbital. There is no new depth here, only the old thinness of postmodernity rebranded.

Stuart Hall’s project of conjunctural analysis outlines that macro research should be rooted in the multiple realities of the nationstate, in politics, in capitalism, in the masses, in the movement of people across borders, and of course now in the resistance of the movement of people across borders. Here also lies the crucial importance of this book to the future.

Tony Jefferson’s contribution, ‘Race, Immigration and the Present Conjuncture’ sutures those conjunctural methods to Britain’s contemporary moment of Brexit via a great reading of Shane Meadows’ film This is England. Jefferson describes how racism shapeshifts into different forms, how we can never find the pure racist anymore than we can find the pure outsider or the pure alien.

Part Six, then, The Intellectual Legacies of Policing the Crisis, is one sole essay – by Angela Davis no less – who argues that Hall’s book Policing the Crisis should be applied to America. I tend to think that America’s race situation and its policing is in fact much more pronounced and severe than in Britain – even with the vile racist nicks in London and elsewhere proceeding relatively unchallenged – and therefore it might be the other way around. This demonstrates just how powerful and influential Hall’s work has been. It was often rooted in a hybrid sense of Britain, but it has projected out, way beyond its own original context.

Again, Stuart Hall both reacted to and shaped the discourses of the times he lived through, but his work will also continue to shape those discourses into the future, and in that we can find some much-needed sustenance and purpose.

– Steve Hanson

Of Means and Endings

Megan Hunter – The End We Start From (Picador, 2017)

I want to tell you about a book. I liked reading it and I think that you, too, would like reading it. Where do I start? I tell you its genre: it’s about an apocalypse. What type? A flood. And who’s the protagonist? A mother of a newborn son… so I suppose you could say it’s about motherhood too.

But already I feel worried, and guilty. A book recommendation is a dangerous thing. I am asking to take hours of your life from you, asking you to spend them reading sentence after sentence. There are some great lines, I clarify. It is short, I add. But there are so many other things you might be doing. So many things that don’t involve reading.

The book I am describing is The End We Start From; the 2017 debut of author and poet Megan Hunter. It is, as I say, a novel about a new mother navigating Britain after an apocalyptic flood. Society has collapsed, refugee camps abound and our hero, with her son ‘Z’, must entrust themselves to a shifting array of men, women and officials as they wait for a new normality to return.

The most fascinating aspect of Hunter’s work, however, is not so much the story as the way it is constructed. The narrative is communicated through tiny paragraphs, mostly between one or two sentences in length. The characters’ names are single letters: S, J, N, R, G. There is very little by way of description and no speech. There is, nevertheless, a full plot and, within those tiny paragraphs, many moments of pure, sweet imagery.

It is the reading equivalent of Ian Simpson’s architecture: the structure is there, you can see its shape, but instead of bricks and mortar there is a wall of glass.

And, as with glass and steel, Hunter’s prose represents a response to twenty-first century technology; a kind of minimalist ornament. The novel might be a quick read (I got through it in a single afternoon) but it is not a fast read. One lingers on the imagery. All that white space on the page is there to promote reverie and reflection. Faced with the impatience of the modern reader, Hunter has bartered a small wordcount for high rate of impact-per-word. This promises a new route for the stylist. A baroque in miniature.

What we lose in Hunter’s writing is the rhythmical journey. For characters defined by their wandering, our protagonists nevertheless seem to exist in an eternal present. There is no space in the narrative for their hopes or their regrets, for mundane conversations or the details of setting. Perhaps these elements have been usurped by visual mediums? What is left for literature, Hunter’s writing seems to suggest, is the allusive detail and the perfect sentence… the stylistics which have become our substance. But then, the story tells itself in a moving way – so perhaps these hesitancies are unwarranted.

The End We Start From is an intriguing prospect. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary writing. To writers I’d recommend it for its innovations, for readers I’d recommend it for its pace. More than anything I’d recommend it because it’s easy to recommend. It is a fundamentally recommendable book.

– Joe Darlington

Go northern global…

Various – Poets and the Algerian War (edited by Francis Combes, translated by Alan Dent)
Francis Combes – If The Symptoms Persist
Ishaq Imruh Bakari – Without Passport or Apology (all Smokestack Books)

Smokestack Books have been quietly putting out a roster of writers for some time now which can easily face those of more well-known poetry publishers such as Bloodaxe and Carcanet. But Smokestack are little known and there is an injustice in that.

I didn’t know about them until I took a trip to Mima in the northeast, one of the most exciting galleries in the country right now, and one which stocks their titles.

One thing I love about Smokestack editions is that they come out of the north of England, but are determinedly international in their interests. Francis Combes edits Poets and the Algerian War, which includes Louis Aragon, Jacques Guacheron and others. It is a ragingly eloquent collection, historical, yes, but just as applicable to Syria and the post-Arab Spring conflict zones now as the poems were to France’s war in Algeria.

For someone who has published a book of conversations with Henri Lefebvre, Francis Combes’ own anthology is very accessible. If The Symptoms Persist bears a cover photograph of a homeless man on his knees, hungry, half a paper cup put out for spare change. The rucksack and modern clothing can no longer disguise the fact that the same situation that was present in the 18th and 19th century is with us again, and that this is where liberalism – the great dream of that age – leads.

The poems themselves are humorous, straightforward, engaging, entertaining even, although the homeless flash up within them time and time again. The lady cleaning herself by the side of the road – there are glimpses all over Paris – the intimate details humanise these victims of laissez faire and a blasé state, they show you that they are us and we are them. The poems fizz with anti-capitalist sentiment too, but always with a sense of humour, a spirit that we can crack this blank grey wall of indifference with language, and with simple language.

Without Passport or Apology is an excellent new anthology of poems by Ishaq Imruh Bakari. This volume contains poems for Stuart Hall, Marcus Garvey, Louis Farrakhan, Shake Keane and Courtney Pine. The story of African and Carribean migration is never far away, but there are also meditations on London in 2011, riots and trouble, vignettes.

This is just a slice of the publisher’s catalogue, there is much more great work being put out: Smokestack Books deserve our interest and support.

– Steve Hanson


A London Sumtin’ Rasta

Todd Dedman – Purists and Peripherals, Hip-Hop and Grime Subcultures (the Tufnell Press, 2017)

This book will mainly be of interest to academics in cultural studies, cultural geography, cultural anthropology, sociology and music, but it will also provide a great deal for the keener grime and British hip hop fan.

For a long time there has been nowhere to go for me, except British hip hop and dubstep. There are a few bands, Selfish Cunt, the Sleaford Mods – the latter arguably are British hip hop – but beyond them nothing contemporary is really worth a look, the exception being British hip hop, grime and dubstep.

I came through, as a fan, jungle and drum’n’bass in the 1990s – like many of the people involved in the music – after being immersed in Acid Jazz and dance music, and I was flung there from psychedelia and jazz. So the new scenes make perfect sense.

This book makes a very welcome and refreshing addition to the British cultural studies canon. It is scholarly but also lean, knowledgeable and rooted in empiricism and sociological practice.

The key dimension of this work that recommends it to posterity is the way it resists the idea that subcultures can now only really be ‘post-subcultures’, that somehow we have moved into a situation where culture is only ever consumed – even rebellious culture – and that the very concept of subcultural tribalism, resistance and subculture, to hijack Raymond Williams, as ‘a whole way of life’, has been swallowed by consumerism and the Fukuyama vision of the End of History.

Of course, even Fukuyama no longer believes that, but the other aspect of this book which will make it a classic in the field is the rooting of relative quantities of ‘resistance’ in different groups: The ‘purists’ and ‘peripherals’ of the title.

Groups from Ashford and Canterbury, Brighton and Rochester were interviewed, and the latter two showed themselves as relatively passive consumers of grime and hip hop culture, and the former two resistant and active.

This is where the history of cultural studies becomes very relevant. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham (CCCS) set up by Stuart Hall, attended by the now-iconic Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie and John Storey, set the bar high for the future with a Marxist and Gramscian approach to popular culture.

Dedman, then, has not only arrived with a classic post-CCCS set of binaries, the lineage of which contains upwardly and downwardly mobile subcultures – mod and hippie for instance – but he has rooted this, also like the classic CCCS studies, in empirical research. He argues for a revival of the CCCS tradition, itself updated, and I know that others are doing this, David Wilkinson for instance.

He also makes good use of Paul Hodkinson’s work on ‘subcultural substance’ from 2002. The analysis is nuanced, the binaries are poles between which Dedman scales his readings of the cultural conversations, they are not drawers in which he files people. The core concepts are worked through in chapters, for instance the very tricky hip hop terminology around being ‘real’ as opposed to fake, meaning authentic, of the streets, tough, experienced. Of course, logic begins to bend once one asks ‘who’s really the realest?’ and the anthropological relativism that follows is not too excessive and the interpretation not too stifling.

It’s great to read the material on postcodes and subcultural zones in the interviews. London looms large too, and the ways in which the ‘London Sumtin’ of Jungle, from a Code 071 record, has continued through grime and dubstep. As Wiley explained in his biography, the first time English accents could be MC’d en masse was when Jungle exploded in the 1990s. Children of Zeus discussed how rapping with a Mancunian or northern accent has only recently become acceptable.

One resistance, then, is Americanisation, although American rap features strongly in respondent conversations. London has its ‘manors’ and British hip hop has its regions. It is, in many ways, the authentic folk culture of our times, even if the bucolic visions and acoustic guitars the word conjures may seem utterly inappropriate. It is globalised folk music, present tense. It is folk as a verb, not as a dusty old repertoire, although of course global history and repertoire are also important.

There is promise for the future here, too: Dedman ends, very topically, arguing for a study of the ‘gyaldem’ (girl them) female rappers and MCs in the UK. The conversation about the unsung females of grime recently went live among the chattering classes on Twitter. Dedman was there before them.

A great book.

– Steve Hanson

‘Un tout autre horizon…’ an interview with Jacques Bidet

Jacques Bidet – Foucault with Marx, translated by Steven Corcoran (Zed Books, 2016, La fabrique, Paris, 2015)

In lieu of a review of Bidet’s book Foucault with Marx, we got in touch with him to discuss the way the text seems timely, now, in 2018. Here is the core of our dialogue: 

SH: It seems to me that Foucault has been given a different share recently, or allotment, among ‘the left’ in Britain certainly.

JB: Foucault indeed leaves several legacies. From the perspective of my book, which confronts its topicality with that of Marx, we can see that he shows a theoretical and critical creativity which continues today to manifest its fertility/fecundity on several fields, and with different posterities.

First, on the domain of sex and gender relations, on which Marxism itself could only manifest a limited relevance because those issues remain outside of a possible grip of its own/proper concepts. Marx and Engels, of course, had a keen apprehension of gender and patriarchal domination, and they also helped to illuminate them by crossing them with class relations. Foucault does not elaborate a social theory of gender relations. But he provides a productive entry into the question by taking sexuality no longer from the point of view of its being repressed, but of the new knowledge that it represents, and the knowledge power to which it gives rise. This research gave full force to the idea that there is another social power than the property power existing as ‘capital’.

My excellent translator, Steve Corcoran, rightly emphasizes the relevance of my transformation of the Foucauldian expression, power-knowledge, into knowledge-power: it is not the power that can provide knowledge, but knowledge that can provide power. More precisely, it is ‘competency’, a competency which is given and received, which gives authority and reproduces itself as a class power: a knowledge-power parallel to the capital-power, but of a different nature.

This discovery of a knowledge-power in sexuality was a part of the unveiling of its presence in all social institutions: medicine, courts, administration, production… This problem of a knowledge-power was, of course, present in Marx’s mind. It is clearly identified in a famous page of The Critique of Gotha’s Program that can be considered as a kind of postface to Capital.

Marx wonders about the future. He distinguishes a ‘first phase of communism’ – the one that will be called ‘socialism’ in the later tradition – which culminates in the appropriation of the means of production and exchange by the workers, operating no longer by the market but by an organization concerted among all. But this phase is only a preamble to the second, that of ‘communism’, in the later terminology, which presupposes the end of the ‘enslaving subordination of manual labor to intellectual labour’, i.e.to the knowledge-power, more precisely competence-power. Here, Marx had the insight, but Foucault produced the concept. From there on, we can note divergent commitments. Those in the Marxist tradition turn spontaneously towards ‘socialism’, a horizon that is constantly receding. The other ones, those inheriting anarchism, self-management, operaism, situationism, etc. aim in some regards directly at communism. Two more or less antagonistic families. We just can hope that the ecological challenge, which brings together the issue of production and that of ‘sense’, leads them to find a path towards unity.

SH: This in itself is quite Foucauldian I guess, that his archive is being re-ordered.

JB: This notion of ‘re-ordering’ can be understood in different ways. They are issues that Foucault first clearly identified and to which he gave a grammar, making them more obvious to the public. They were marginal and they became central. They can be summed up as ‘minority’ issues, where minority is not opposed to ‘majority’, but to the notion of ‘totality’, a totality from which every particular problem should be considered. The characteristic of the ‘minority’ is that they have nothing to do with a social totality: homosexuals, ethnic identities, belong to a temporality different from that of the class. And, in this sense, women are paradoxically the minority par excellence. Their struggle does not dissolve in class struggle considered as a vector of universal emancipation. Here we can see how Foucault’s thought is redistributed in several domains without losing its identity.

SH: The left in Britain see Foucault as a harbinger of neoliberalism, not the announcer of its form of power (which is how I see him).

JB: Foucault anticipated the arrival of neoliberalism before all others, at least in France. France seemed solidly protected from liberalism by a ‘social state’ more ensured than that of its great neighbours and by an enduring anti-capitalist political ferment, once again revitalized by the great workers and students movements of ’68. Foucault escapes the sort of historical optimism that prevailed in the 60s-80s in the leftist circles, which saw the future as a gradual triumph of social conquests.

He felt for neoliberalism a certain fascination based on a principle of reality which was lacking in the intellectual milieu of the left in which he bathed. Because, on the one hand, his original political affinities were rather on the side of the republican right, and, on the other hand, because he had been living long enough outside France, outside the French evidence. The thinker in him foresaw the possibility of another civilization, entirely based on a flexible individualism: he felt, as Tocqueville did but in an opposite perspective, an obscure mix of enthusiasm and terror. But the citizen and the moralist that he also was remained attached to certain essential schemes of the social state.

SH: I think your book is particularly timely to revisit now as the young or new left are turning to an older sort of Marxism and turning away from Foucault.

JB: The advent of neoliberalism, with its devastating and almost universal development, brings a young generation back to the fundamentals of Marxism, towards the idea of a radical domination of capitalism. The twenty-first century situation seems to resume and universalize that of the nineteenth century, beyond the great popular time of the twentieth century conquests, which can eventually appear as a rather brief episode. For a century there had been counter-powers, which are now weakened, because they only developed thanks to the temporary context of the nation-state. In the present situation of capitalist globalization, Capital can paradoxically be read as a novel of anticipation. This ‘society in which the capitalist mode of production prevails (herrscht, reigns)’, in the first sentence of Capital Book I, which Marx profiled according to a British ideal type, may seem to have realized its full relevance only today, at the world scale, beyond a century of national resistances. Neo-liberalism is nothing else than an unhindered liberalism. This happens when the two forces that allied in a ‘national’ project and hindered it – that of the competent (see: competency power), which contains it in certain limits, and the popular force that struggles against it – separate from one other.

SH: I think the spirit of those formed in ’68 is being lost and on a more everyday level one can see this in the harrassment of ‘baby boomers’ as though they were the agents, somehow, of neoliberalism… again, your book is timely in this regard.

JB: I do not think that this generation, as such, is particularly an ‘accomplice’ in neoliberalism. Clearly, the initiative in neo-liberalism starts from financial capital: its first beginnings in the 60s were illustrated by figures such as Thatcher and Reagan. Very quickly, it was largely understood that the rise of the digital, this revolution in the productive forces, would revolutionize the life of the firm and allow a financialized economy at the world scale. Thus the project of liquidating what remained of the social state could appear. Once the border is down, the alliance between the labour class and the competent tends to collapse. And the latter tend to find their place in the new neoliberal capitalism, which needs them as purveyors of order and meaning, and can reward them in this function. Neoliberalism has been an opportunity for some of them.

But it does not mean that generation ’68 as a whole is melted in this mould. Of course, I’m talking about what I know a little, about the French situation, and about the long process that I experienced myself, from the 1960s to the present day. The heirs of ’68 have massively participated in an associative, both social and cultural, effervescence which remains behind what we now call ‘civil society’, turning this expression from its former sense: meaning no longer the private sphere centred around freedom-ownership, but the private common world of unions, of social, cultural, feminist, etc. associations.

Obviously, the current ‘memory of 68’ is mainly that of the student movement. The workers returned to their factories, their struggle continued in other forms. The students resumed their studies. Some of them, among the most convinced, dreamed of revolutionizing the factory. But that was not their vocation. They eventually joined the middle and upper classes. And they are those, of course, who are now producing the ‘memory’, the archive of those years. The dominant theme is ‘imagination in power’. Their imagination. Yet inventiveness was as great in the labor movement. Workers’ culture, that of the unions, was not so different. Strikes were regulated by a constant return to the base, in the form of assemblies, and not under a command at the top. What later made the difference, particularly in terms of a disappearance of memory, is that the management immediately understood that the production space had to be transformed, decentralized, split up into different legal units, managed by competitive procedures, etc.

In the long run, the labour movement has been weakened to the point of losing any memory. The workers of 2018 will not remind us of those of ’68. The (grown) old intellectuals will provide for it… celebrating the now old students of ’68. But the ceremonies will remain limited to small committees, because today’s students, in their mass, do not feel really concerned: their own vocation is quite different from that of their seniors. They are facing the uncertain future which is today that of the common working class. Quite a different prospect…

‘Un tout autre horizon…’ Jacques Bidet

Jacques Bidet – Foucault with Marx, traducteur Steven Corcoran (Zed Books, 2016, La fabrique, Paris, 2015)

Foucault laisse en effet plusieurs héritages. Dans la perspective de mon livre, qui confronte son actualité à celle de Marx, on peut voir qu’il fait preuve d’une créativité théorique et critique qui continue aujourd’hui à montrer sa fécondité sur plusieurs terrains, et avec des postérités distinctes.

Il s’agit en premier lieu du domaine des rapports de genre et de sexe, sur lequel le marxisme lui-même ne pouvait manifester qu’une pertinence limitée parce qu’il restait en dehors d’une possible emprise de ses concepts propres. Marx et Engels, bien sûr, avaient une appréhension aiguë de la domination de genre et patriarcale, et ils contribuaient aussi à les éclairer en les croisant avec les rapports de classe. Foucault n’élabore pas une théorie sociale des rapports de genre. Mais il fournit une entrée productive dans la question en prenant la sexualité non plus du point de vue de la répression à laquelle elle donne lieu, mais du point de vue du savoir qu’elle représente. Et il fait apparaître le pouvoir-savoir (knowledge power) auquel elle donne lieu. Cette recherche donne notamment toute sa force l’idée qu’il existe un autre pouvoir social que le pouvoir-propriété qui se manifeste dans la forme du capitalisme.

Mon excellent traducteur, Steve Corcoran, souligne à juste titre le bien-fondé de la transformation que j’opère de la formule foucaldienne, savoir-pouvoir, power-knowledge, en pouvoir-savoir, knowledge-power: ce n’est pas le pouvoir qui donne du savoir, mais le savoir qui donne du pouvoir. Plus précisément la compétence, qui est donnée et reçue, qui donne autorité et se reproduit comme un pouvoir de classe : knowledge-power parallèle à capital-power, mais de nature différente.

Cette découverte d’un pouvoir-savoir dans la sexualité s’inscrit dans un dévoilement de sa présence dans l’ensemble des institutions sociales : médecine, tribunaux, administration, production… Cette question du pouvoir-savoir était, bien entendu, présente l’esprit de Marx. On la trouve clairement identifiée dans une page fameuse du Critique du programme de Gotha, que l’on peut considérer comme une sorte de postface au Capital. Marx s’interroge sur l’avenir. Il évoque une première phase du communisme (celle que la tradition ultérieure appellera le socialisme), qui culmine dans l’appropriation des moyens de production et d’échange par les travailleurs et leur mise en œuvre non plus par le marché mais par une organisation concertée entre tous. Mais cette phase n’est qu’un préambule la seconde, celle du communisme proprement dit, qui suppose la fin de l’asservissante subordination du travail manuel au travail intellectuel, c’est-à-dire au pouvoir-savoir, plus précisément du pouvoir-compétence. Sur ce terrain, Marx avait l’idée en tête, mais Foucault a produit le concept. Il s’opère à partir de là un partage de l’engagement. Dans la tradition du marxisme, l’engagement s’oriente d’abord vers le socialisme, un horizon qui recule sans cesse. Mais d’autres traditions, qui héritent de l’anarchisme, de l’autogestion, de l’opéraïsme, du situationnisme, visent en quelque sorte directement le communisme. Deux familles plus ou moins antagoniques. Il se pourrait pourtant que le défi écologique, qui réunit la question de la production et la question de son sens, conduise ces deux courants à trouver leur unité.

Cette notion de reventilation peut être prise en des sens différents. D’un côté, il est une série de questions que Foucault premier le plus clairement identifiées, et auquel il a donné une grammaire, sont devenues plus évidentes aux yeux de l’opinion publique. Elles étaient marginales et elles deviennent centrales. On peut les résumer en les désignant comme les questions de “minorités”, par opposition non pas à des majorités, mais à la notion de totalité, d’une totalité à partir de laquelle on devait envisager tous les problèmes particuliers. Le propre des minorité est que leur agenda n’est pas celui d’une totalité sociale : les homosexuels, les identités ethniques, relèvent d’un autre historique que celui de la classe. Et en ce sens, les femmes constituent, paradoxalement, la minorité par excellence. Leur lutte ne se dissout pas dans la lutte de classe considérée comme vecteur de l’émancipation universelle. On voit ici comment la pensée de Foucault se redistribue dans plusieurs domaines sans perdre de son identité.

Foucault a vu l’arrivée du néolibéralisme avant tous les autres, en France du moins. La France semblait solidement protégée du libéralisme par un état social mieux assuré que celui de ses grands voisins, et par une effervescence politique anticapitaliste rémanente, revivifiée pour les grands mouvements de 68 tant dans le monde étudiant que chez les salariés. Foucault échappe à cette sorte d’optimisme historique qui régnait, dans les années 60-80, dans les milieux de gauche, qui voyait l’avenir dans la forme d’un triomphe progressif assuré des conquêtes sociales.

Il y a bien chez lui une fascination pour le néolibéralisme. Elle relevait d’un principe de réalité, qui faisait défaut au milieu intellectuel de la gauche dans lequel il baignait. Parce que d’une part ses affinités politiques originelles se trouvaient plutôt du côté de la droite républicaine, et d’autre part parce qu’il a vécu assez longtemps hors de France, hors des évidences françaises. Le penseur entrevoyait la possibilité d’une autre civilisation, entièrement fondée sur un individualisme flexible : il était pris, à la façon de Tocqueville mais dans une perspective opposée, dans un mélange obscur d’enthousiasme et de terreur. Mais le citoyen et le moraliste qu’il était aussi restait attaché à certaines dispositions essentielles de l’État social.

L’avènement du néolibéralisme, son développement foudroyant et presque universel, ramène en effet une jeune génération vers les fondamentaux originaires du marxisme, vers l’idée d’une domination radicale du capitalisme. Cette situation du XXIe siècle semble nous ramener à celle du XIXe siècle, par-delà les grandes conquêtes populaires du XXe siècle, qui peuvent en effet apparaître comme un épisode assez bref. Pendant un siècle, on avait vu monter des contre-pouvoirs, qui maintenant sont affaiblis, parce qu’ils se développaient dans le contexte de l’État-nation. Dans la situation présente, celle d’un capitalisme mondialisé, on peut lire Le Capital comme un roman d’anticipation. Cette société dans laquelle le mode de production capitaliste prévaut (herrscht, reigns)”, selon la première phrase du Capital, que Marx profilait selon un idéal type britannique peut sembler avoir aujourd’hui réalisé sa pleine actualité, au-delà d’un siècle de résistances nationales. Le néolibéralisme n’est rien d’autre qu’un libéralisme sans entrave. Et cela se produit quand les deux forces, alliées dans un projet national, qui l’entravaient se sont disjointes : celle du monde des compétents (du pouvoir-compétence), qui le contenait dans certaines limites, et la force populaire qui luttait à son encontre.

Je ne pense pas que cette génération, comme telle, soit particulièrement complice de néolibéralisme. Clairement, l’initiative du néolibéralisme part du capital financier, et les perspectives qui peuvent être les siennes déjà au cours de ces années 60, qui sont illustrés par Thatcher et Reagan. Très rapidement, on a pu comprendre que l’essor du numérique, cette révolution dans les forces productives, allait permettre une économie financiarisée à l’échelle du monde et que l’ordinateur allez révolutionner la vie de l’entreprise. Ainsi pouvait naître le projet de liquider ce qui restait de l’État social. Une fois que les frontières se sont abaissées, cette alliance entre le peuple et les compétents tend à s’effondrer. Et ceux-ci tendent à trouver leur place dans le nouvel ordre néolibéral, qui a besoin d’eux comme pourvoyeurs d’ordre et de sens, et qui peut les rétribuer dans cette fonction. Le néolibéralisme a été une opportunité pour certains d’entre eux.

Mais cela ne veut pas dire que la génération 68 ce soit fondue dans ce moule. Évidemment, je parle de ce que je connais un peu, de la situation française, et du long processus que j’ai moi-même vécu, depuis les années 60 jusqu’à ce jour. Les héritiers de 68 ont, dans leur masse, participé à une effervescence associative, à la fois sociale et culturelle qui est à la base de ce que l’on appelle aujourd’hui la “société civile”. On détourne aujourd’hui cette expression de son sens ancien : elle ne vise plus la sphère privée centrée autour de la liberté-propriété, mais le monde privé associatif, syndical, social, culturel, féministe, etc.

Évidemment, la mémoire de 68 est principalement celle du mouvement étudiant. Les ouvriers sont rentrés dans leurs usines, leur lutte a continué sous d’autres formes. Les étudiants ont repris leur cursus. Certains, parmi les plus convaincus, voulaient révolutionner l’usine. Mais ce n’était pas la leur vocation. Ils ont par la suite accédé à des couches moyennes et supérieures de la société. Et ce sont eux, naturellement qui produisent la mémoire, l’archive de ces années. Le thème qui domine est celui de l’imagination au pouvoir. L’inventivité était pourtant aussi grande dans le mouvement ouvrier. La culture ouvrière, celle des syndicats, n’était pas si différente. Les mouvements de grève se développaient avec un retour régulier à la base, sous forme d’assemblées, et non pas sous un commandement au sommet. Ce qui a fait par la suite la différence, notamment sur le plan de la mémoire, c’est que le patronat a immédiatement compris qu’il fallait transformer l’espace de production, décentraliser, décomposer l’unité de l’entreprise. Etc. Le mouvement ouvrier a été pilonné au point même de perdre sa mémoire. Ce ne seront pas les ouvriers de 2018 qui célèbreront 68. Les vieux intellos célèbreront les étudiants de 68. Cela restera cependant en petits comités, parce que les étudiants d’aujourd’hui, dans leur masse, ont maintenant une tout autre vocation que leurs aînés : un avenir incertain qui est aujourd’hui celui de l’ensemble du monde du travail. Un tout autre horizon…

– Jacques Bidet


Johann Hari – Lost Connections (Bloomsbury, 2018)

The book’s star-studded list of recommendees is disturbing, and their comments even more so. The cover is adorned with what these A-Listers have to say: “The most exciting thing I’ve read this year” – Emma Thompson (thank god it was only published mid January), “This amazing book will change your life” – Elton John, and so on. The only thing I can say is that I am ashamed of myself for being duped into paying for the hardback.

I can’t help but be confused by the idea that anyone would learn anything new here, and as a person who has suffered from depression for most of my life, its “solutions” seem embarrassingly obvious. Then again, the ADs never did work for me. Perhaps this is why is has taken Hari much longer to clock on. It seems baffling that to suggest depression is caused by what goes on in our lives might be considered profound or revelatory.

I am quite so disappointed because I had looked forward to reading the book with great excitement. Where is this new wisdom I was promised? With an overwhelming surge of self-help and personal development (whatever you want to call them) books in recent times, this one seemed highly promising and with academic edge. It is in fact, unfortunately and simply, a repetitive collection of previous academic research.

I found the tale of camaraderie in Berlin perhaps the most charming part of the book but still it said nothing new. The “characters” we are introduced to in this section are endearing and inspiring, but the same cannot be said of Hari. Perhaps a biog or novel on this situation might have been more effective.

Lamentably, Hari comes across not wise or innovative but naïve. How has it taken him so long to understand such simple concepts? It is no wonder that he is depressed. It was interesting to hear about the case studies behind these ideas but it is worth noting that Hari himself had no involvement with any of their groundbreaking research – most of which took place in the 20th century. Also, as other reviewers have pointed out, the researchers themselves don’t really get much say in the book at all. Why are these old theories being rehashed as something not just new but mind-blowingly so?

Overall, Lost Connections is still an interesting read as the original research that is reproduced within it is interesting, and perhaps the book is enlightening to the layman, or the non-depressed. However this is no original contribution by a long shot, it says nothing new to anyone who has thought seriously about depression for more than a few minutes.

I will offer a summary of Hari’s life-changing advice here, so that you might save your pennies and start your path to magical healing straight away: hang out with other people, go for a walk, get a job you like, acknowledge being abused as a child, and move forward with your life. Who knew?

– Blair James 

The Story Ritual

Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)

Humans have never been an apex predator. Not for us the noble complacency of the lion. No, our intelligence is born of a low cunning and fear. The appeal of the folktale is that it reminds us of these old fears and the cunning magics we used to overcome them. Zoe Gilbert’s debut book, Folk, channels these ancient energies, focuses and enhances them. The results are captivating.

Folk, like any magical item, unsettles you even while it entices. The gorgeous dust jacket by David Mann (admittedly, the reason I first bought the book) seems, at a distance, like a William Morris print. Look closer, however, and you notice the blood spattering sparrow’s beaks, the bees in the roses and, considering the detailed foliage, a notable lack of green. Gilbert’s stories have the same effect; pastoral scenes with underlying threats, dangers by the hearth. Her prose too combines a capitating flair for linguistic ornament with short, punchy, brutal sentences.

Gilbert, in capturing the essence of the folktale, has structured the book as a series of overlapping stories. There is no overarching narrative in novelistic terms. Instead, by setting the book in the small island community of Neverness in some non-specific pre-modern time, Gilbert achieves a sense of continuity through the recurrence of characters, the passage of time, and the rituals which bind them all together. The book is structured as Neverness is structured.

Gilbert has a knack for conjuring believable rituals. The book opens and closes with the gorse maze game. The girls tie their names to arrows and fire them deep in the gorse. The boys shave their heads and dive in to get them, the deepest divers winning the dearest hearts. When a boy emerges with a girls arrow she kisses him on his bloody lips. The bloodier the better, is how the girls talk of it.

There is magic in Neverness too, of a sort. “Verlyn’s Blessings”, my favourite of the tales, is about a man born with a wing for an arm. One sees how he has adapted, weaving baskets as his fisherman brothers go to sea, and while his wife has him hide the arm, his son is proud of the feathered thumb he has inherited. Gilbert captures how a community deals with difference, and how it feels to be different. She emphasises the realism in magic realism; a refreshing approach in a genre still too much in the shadow of Angela Carter.

A theme runs through the book concerning the pleasures of the wilderness, of the dark and unrestrained. “The Water Bull Bride” embodies this attraction in an amphibious lover, the story “Turning” embodies it through shamanic visions. There are things we catch glimpses of, out of the corner of our eyes, which promise a rampant and devastating freedom. “Civilisation”, if it means anything, means turning away from these dangers. Folk, in its daring, holds up a mirror where, looking carefully, we can see them reflected.

There is a category of novel, hard to define, that includes Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness. They are novels about the conflict inside the soul of every person; a conflict between order and chaos, between freedom and dignity.

Critics of late have sought to purge the canon of these texts on account of their colonial implications. Folk, I would argue, demonstrates that such conflicts are real, they are everyday and they are important subjects for literature. By setting her tales on a remote island, Gilbert repositions these stories away from the colonial. That is perhaps what Neverness means: there are no tribes, there are no “Others”, we are doing these things to ourselves.

A final, and critically important thing to note about Folk, is its use of third person. Every novel I read that was published in 2017 was written in first person. Individually, each had its reasons, but collectively the effect was disconcerting. A novelist’s ability to evoke the third person, the objective observer outside the situation, demonstrates our medium’s capacity to depict the universal. By returning us to our folk roots, I hope that Zoe Gilbert will remind us of our duties in this matter. I hope this book becomes a bestseller.

Folk is a brilliant piece of fictionwork. One that promises to stick in the mind for years to come.

– Joe Darlington