Down the dark rabbit hole…

Julie Egdell – Alice in Winterland (Smokestack Books)

As a lover of Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’, I was initially hesitant to read this collection, but I came away feeling enthralled by the atmosphere of the poetry though with a slight after-chill. The book left a lasting impression upon me.

Egdell uses Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice’ as a way to look at transitions and being an adult in the world, particularly her experience of living in Russia. She uses the original works effectively and with caution and respect, in order to frame other issues.

My favourite two poems come near the end of the book and the first one is ‘Something from Alice’ with excellent use of images and language. For example, the line: ‘I emerged from the belly of my outer skin’ is inspired and works on many levels. Egdell successfully plays with words, metaphor and meaning and also describes the harsh reality of the realisation in adulthood that life is hard.

The second poem I really liked follows the one just mentioned and is named ‘Dreamchild’. Although the poem has an apparently cheering title the poem discusses death. It includes a line that makes reference to a ‘nothing game’. A ‘nothing game’ is very like something Carrol may have written and invented but, to my knowledge, did not. This poem however is far darker than Carrol’s Alice and left me quite unsettled.

The contrast Egdell portrays between childhood ‘fluffiness’ with references to children’s fairy stories, literature and myths, and experiences, and on being a person in the world (which can be a cold place – in many ways) gets into your bones. The feeling it resulted in for me was dread, as opposed to fear, with a bit of low energy excitement thrown in. The collection becomes darker and darker as it moves on and Egdell successfully keeps pace in the collection by interweaving styles and content, encouraging us all the time to get to the end of her journey with her.

– Sally Barrett


2017 End of Year Review No.4

Some books which have made an impression on me this year, presented unsystematically and in no particular order…

As someone who’s spent the last few year being excited about the work of Chris Kraus it was a great thrill to get the chance to attend a reading she gave, this year, at Waterstones, Deansgate. Kraus’s appearance in Manchester was in support of her new book After Kathy Acker – the first book on this Top 5 of the year list of mine – which is Kraus’s biography of the great 70s/80s punk literary experimentalist who appropriated, and made her own work from everyone from Milton and Dickens right through to Harold Robbins.

Kraus’s book is a scrupulously researched run through of Acker’s life and achievements but, as well, it’s also a portrayal of the various literary/bohemian milieus Acker existed in and moved through: artists, filmmakers, writers and musicians helping each other and supporting each other and, just as often, stabbing each other in the back . . . It’s a tremendously exciting read and very evocative of a time and place I dearly wish I’d known.

Two writers younger than Acker who yet moved in some of the same circles as her are Lynne Tillman and Mary Gaitskill; and whilst reading Kraus’s Acker book, by chance, I came across books by both Tillman and Gaitskill in charity shops . . . And though I’m not going to include on this list anything by either Tillman or Gaitskill I will heartily recommend, in particular, Tillman’s Motion Sickness and Haunted Houses and Gaitskill’s Two Girls, Fat and Thin.

Maggie Nelson is a writer seeming to be exploring some of the similar areas to Kraus, the intersections between autobiography, art-writing and critical theory, and, though she’s someone who’s been around for a while, Nelson’s a writer I only got around to reading this year. This year I read, from Nelson, first off, her Bluets followed by The Art of CrueltyBluets was the standout title for me and so takes the second position on this Top 5 list. It’s a meditation on Nelson’s relationship to the colour blue charting, as well, some of the historical uses the colour has been put to. The book is poetic, moving and profound. And, at the time I read it, I hadn’t encountered anything quite like it before. It’s only a slim book but one which contains an awful lot.

Whilst poetry has long been my primary writing activity I haven’t done that much of it, comparatively speaking, over the last couple of years, having been busy – instead – on a seemingly never-ending, ever changing book-length prose work; my reading of poetry has also slipped a bit . . . This year, poetry-wise, it’s been just Eileen Myles’s Collected I Must be Living Twice; Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems and Neruda’s Elemental Odes which seem to have left an impression on me. Room for none of those on this list though . . .

In the constantly threatening to topple book pile by my bed I’d say its film-related texts that have supplanted poetry; this past year I’ve got through a load of film stuff . . . theory; histories and biographies. The ones I’ve enjoyed most would probably be Robin Wood’s very precise, detailed survey of 6 of Hitchcock’s films; Jean Luc-Godard’s collected film writing, edited by Tom Milne; Robert B Ray’s The Avant-Garde finds Andy Hardy and Placing Movies by Jonathan Rosenbaum.

The Rosenbaum, in particular, impressed me a lot and takes the third spot on this list. Rosenbaum, a long-standing movie critic for the likes of Sight and Sound, the Village VoiceFilm Comment and, latterly, the Chicago Reader has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies and his writing is never less than fascinating. The essays collected in Placing Movies include considerations of Barthes on cinema-going and extended meditations on some of my favourite directors including Jacques Rivette and Bela Tarr. Also, the list of movies I found myself noting down, movies I hadn’t seen but wanted to, grew longer almost page by page as I made my way through Rosenbaum. 2018 definitely looks like being a year of filling in some gaps in my movie-watching record as well as further investigations into Rosenbaum’s back catalogue.

A new area of reading, for me, this year, has been art writing; some of the titles I’ve enjoyed include Eileen Myles’s The Importance of Being Iceland; Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World; Arthur C Danto’s What is Art?; and Grayson Perry’s Playing to the Gallery. The art book which blew me away though, this past year, and which I’m going to put in this list at number 4 is Hal Foster’s Bad New Days: a survey of a handful of contemporary artists plus an attempt to identify and analyse certain theoretical concerns recognisable behind the work of the artists Foster has focussed upon.

I found the book demanding but, also, endlessly exciting. Every couple of pages, it felt like, I was being introduced to some new idea; ideas not just to do with art but to do with psychoanalysis, critical theory and political resistance. As per Rosenbaum, I expect next year will see me digging deeper in Foster’s work.

Finally, the number 5 spot of this list is going to be occupied collectively, by a rather random selection of a few of the books I’ve read this past 12 months which appear, from my perspective of today, to have left some kind of imprint in my brain. Firstly, there’s Pierre Guyotat’s autobiographical Coma detailing the deterioration of his health which led, eventually, to him falling into a coma in the pursuit of his literary vision. An unsurprisingly intense read which, however, encouraged me to seek out other translations of Guyotat. Renata Adler’s Speedboat: a collage of impressions; snippets of conversations; half-finished stories; dialogue overheard on the street; and advertising slogans and things off TV which seemed to me to add up to a much fresher, newer way of creating ‘fiction’ and, as well, an example that, it could be argued, hasn’t really been followed up. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: Wharton being a writer I’d long been convinced might prove hard-work, and hard-work of the not particularly rewarding variety I was, to my surprise, blown away by this novel. A beautifully written, stylish account of love and manners amongst the upper class new Yorkers of the early 20th century; I loved it and currently have several more Wharton novels sat on my shelf awaiting their turn to be read.  Finally, I want to mention Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up: a short story collection of tales of the uncanny and strange  featuring Axolotl obsession and young men who vomit bunny rabbits. Lots of sci-fi-esque effects happening in non-sci-fi settings. Weird as anything; also brilliant.

. . . and having finished this list I’m, immediately, remembering more books from the past year that I’ve enjoyed and which deserve a mention here but, you know, it’s Sunday morning and I want some breakfast, so I’ll end this here.

– Richard Barrett 

2017 End of Year Review No.3

Although the task at hand for MRB contributors was to pick the top five reads of their own year, regardless of the year of publication, I couldn’t resist the challenge of attempting to keep it current. For my end of year review I therefore set myself the task of only including books published in 2017.

Having made an initial list, narrowed it down, picked my top five, and only then checked the publication date, I am sorry to report that I have failed in my task. One book on my list came out in December 2016 (I was pretty close!) and another comes out in January (I forgot mine was an advance review copy – oops!). After a brief moment of reflection, I have decided to stick to my decisions. I’ll try harder next year.

1) Wladimir Velminski – Homo Sovieticus: Brain Waves, Mind Control and Telepathic Destiny, Erik Butler (trans.). MIT Press, 2017. pp. 128.

I have the all-knowing algorithm to thank for this first choice. I don’t know how they found out that Soviet mind control experiments are exactly my jam (telepathy?), but once they did the MIT Press were tweeting at me harder than a drunk president at midnight.

After giving way to such elementary suggestion I found this short, concise book to be packed with fascinating historical insights. It’s a flyover of the whole Soviet era: from the 1920s constructivists measuring the perfect hammering trajectory for robotic workers, to 1960s Cold War telepathic spying, to the programmes aired in 1989 attempting to hypnotise dissenting Germans as the Berlin Wall fell. In some ways weird and wacky, the core of the analysis nevertheless shows how close these experiments were to mainstream scientific thinking under Marxist conditions.

2) Mindy Johnson, Ink and Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation, Disney Editions, 2017. pp.384.

From one secret science to another. Johnson’s massive A2 full-colour book is perhaps the most important work of historical recovery I’ve read this year. It focuses on the inkers and painters of Disney’s golden age; the women responsible for turning pencil sketches on paper into fully-coloured and perfectly line-weighted cels. Previous writing on this subject has concentrated on the segregation between male animators and women inkers and painters, coming to the erroneous conclusion that ink and paint was therefore a lesser art form. Johnson instead devotes her energies to telling the inside story of this previously hidden art through interviews and a deep archive dive. I haven’t finished it yet (A2 isn’t a great size of book for reading on the tram!) but so far it’s been revelatory. I can’t guarantee the quality of the ending because I’ve not read it yet.

3) M.D. Penman – The Shattered, Eimurian Tales, 2017.

Having spent a truly irrational amount of money on indie comics this year I just had to include one in my end of year review. Penman’s book-length The Shattered is as close to a masterpiece as I have encountered in the medium this year. Its fantasy world has depth and believability to it, its narrative raises complex ideas while being perfectly paced, and there are some genuinely heartbreaking moments in it. On the third reading I also realised that it’s a comment on the refugee crisis, which should recommend it both for being politically astute and for its thematic understatement. This is a book to be reread, and a great introduction to indie comics for those who have yet to discover this wage-consuming world of wonders.

4) Ann Quin – The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, Jennifer Hodgson, ed. And Other Stories, 2018. pp.192.

Okay, so this one isn’t out yet, but I’ve already read it and reviewed it (hyperlink? – Ed) and, most importantly, that review racked up a lot of likes. As a long-time fan of Ann Quin there is something satisfyingly comprehensive in this collection. Where her oeuvre previously consisted of four books and a disparate collection of stories and fragments scattered across rare collections and lost magazines, it is now very definitively five books. It also serves as an excellent overview of her career for new readers, which is my excuse for including it in here.

5) Trebor Scholz – Uberworked and Underpaid: How Workers are Disrupting the Digital Economy, Polity Press, 2016. pp.242.

The final book in my top 5 of 2017 is actually from 2016, but I didn’t receive my copy until 2017 so we’ll count it. Scholz’ study of the modern landscape of labour covers casualisation, data harvesting, the exploitation hidden behind “automation”, gamification and a series of radical alternatives which have arisen in response. There is a vast amount of hogwash that has been published in recent years about changes in our work and the digital landscape, most of which take a small, singular facet of the complex whole and use it to foresee utopias or dystopias. By moving rapidly between different areas of change Scholz has produced what I consider to be the first real panoramic view of post-2008 digitised work. It is thoroughly researched and combines a mass of interviews with the hard economic and technological facts in a way which, as someone who has worked in these areas, makes me feel like he actually knows what he’s talking about (a refreshing experience). This book might be a year old now but I still think it has the most to say about today of any other I’ve read.

– Joe Darlington

2017 End of Year Review No.2

All the books and other publications I enjoyed enough in 2017 to tweet about them:


Miranda Doyle, A Book of Untruths: A Memoir, 2017:

“Just finished @Miranda_J_Doyle’s new memoir. Really enjoyed its approach to storytelling & truth telling.”

Tom Jeffreys, Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot, 2017:

“Really enjoyable holiday reading (review copy for @MancReviewBooks) – strong on landscape & its links to culture, authority, identity, etc.”
Richard and Sally Barrett, 67, 100, Sometimes 10, 2017:
“The publication I’ve enjoyed most recently: @Bazzabarrett76 & @disappearingmac’s comic/tragic poems inspired by buses, people and life.”

Richard Brook, Manchester Modern, 2017:

“The book’s a real thing of beauty – and a great resource & guide to Greater Manchester’s twentieth century buildings!”

Corridor8, Ripe, 2017:

“Belatedly (bought months ago & only just read): really enjoyed this publication bringing together writing on art, erotica & food production.”

Chapel Street Community Arts, Mind the Gap, 2017:
“Picked up this free publication yesterday: interesting photography project on contrasts & inequalities in inner-city & suburban Salford.”

Non-2017 publications

Jason Orton and Ken Worpole, the New English Landscape, 2013:

“Currently exploring the marshy coastlines and muddy creeks of north Essex. Really enjoying this holiday reading!”

Living Art Museum, Archive on the Run, 2013:

“A very nice book reflecting on the Living Museum, a really interesting project & collection founded by Icelandic artists in 1978.”

Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, 2013:

“Current train journey reading. Really like his way of writing blending personal experience/memory with psychoanalytical history & theory.”
“Also an interesting read in relation to a piece I’ve been working on around ‘personal troubles, public issues’.”

Jackie Kay, Trumpet, 1998:
“Just finished reading Jackie Kay’s Trumpet for @Coop_CollegeUK and @CooperativesUK’s new #HolyoakeHouse reading group & absolutely loved it!”

Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, 1961 (despite only being a quarter of the way through, this merited three tweets): 

“Finally reading this, after many years of meaning to. Lots of it already feels so familiar, because of hearing her ideas talked about so much!”

“Her writing about the ‘daily ballet’ of New York is some of the best writing I’ve read about NY (speaking as someone who spent their teens reading writing about NY!) and maybe cities in general.”

“(My other favourite bit so far has been the comments about ‘special-interest communities’ in cities, and the way in which people with special interests find each other and exchange ideas across the whole city, rather than just small neighbourhoods!).”

– Natalie Bradbury

More trouble with lichen

Drew Milne – In Darkest Capital (Carcanet)

Drew Milne has published with Salt and other revered poetry presses. His work is solidly structural, but it is also fluid. It is a combination of a quite hard formalism and looser riffing. I can only reach for jazz metaphors, but this work hits me like the moment of post-modal hard bop, when bands were tight and free at the same time, the Coltrane of Giant Steps and Favourite Things, for instance.

But Milne’s credentials are Marxist and academic, ecological and political, declaring himself ‘in solidarity with lichens against capital.’ I am immediately taken to the sequence in Patrick Keiller’s third Robinson film, The Robinson Institute (BFI) where we get a series of views of lichen on a road sign. They grow over the illustrations of human routeways, ‘our’ supposed mastery of geography. They indicate their own ecology and cosmology and this collection seems to hint at a similar ambition. Cover it all over in beautiful green sleep for decades until something emerges.

Keiller’s Robinson Institute also contains a monologue about the Speenhamland agreement of 1795 and accounts of rural uprising, over shots of a neatly clipped industrialised rural without a riot in sight. The descriptions explain how sections of this bucolic view are owned by overseas corporations and companies.

For very good reasons, all of these things ghost my reading of In Darkest Capital. Milne is the essential antidote to the accelerationism of the Nick Land that ended up producing ‘Dark Enlightenment’.

In Darkest Capital has the sense of ‘In Darkest Africa’, and here is Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, that capitalism begins with a defibrillator jolt of genocide and an injection of the raw materials that would have been available to the dead. It is its shift from chemistry to biology. Schumpeter didn’t agree, but after protesting oil wars for much of the first half of my life, I don’t agree with Schumpeter. Capitalism is, then, as ‘primitive’ as it gets.

But what makes this a collection that should be with us for a thousand years is its use of language. There are tens of thousands of chumpy leftwing writers and hundreds of cringemakingly worthy leftist poets, with their middle class fuzzyheaded notions of the loss of pits and factory work, without ever having gone in one that wasn’t already a museum.

Milne’s work avoids all these deadly, suffocating traps. It manages to somehow align itself with a europhile notion of avant garde formalism without being totally indulgent. It manages to simultaneously be bleakly, blearily of the deracinating landscapes of late capitalism, while retaining a skewering micro critique linked to a macro overview.

It is academic poetry though. We get references to Aristotle’s notion of ‘entelechy’, a sort-of self-organising motive force, and words familiar to Marxists such as ‘verstehen’ and German Idealist philosophy and its critics emerging in Marx and onwards. The nods and references are there, but unlike some leftwing poets it isn’t too self-aware, particularly in the poems that appear later in the collection. Sometimes the huge signs of, say, ‘Habermas’ seem overbearing, included in titles, but what comes after always gives the scratchy, scrambled lie to the monumental signifier.

Suddenly, Milne writes of the Halifax spreadsheet and having worked there as a designer on their report and accounts, watching 9/11 happen on the vast marketing digital screen, it gives me a chill. It feels like the long-dead tradition of prophecy has been revived. But I must be very clear, these are surfaces, but lichen surfaces, growing, moving, not staying still. I introject into them, finding fertile ground there. These poems scramble meaning in order to take the slow organic journey towards new forms.

This is a writer who understands that meaning is made and re-made across facades, in clusters of complexity, not in ‘depth’. But these surfaces crawl over and cover the neatly ordered default cultural landscape, giving a sense of thin hope in a world with little left in it.

This is useful. This is solid work. There is no pompous introduction by A Big Somebody. This is a book to live in and grow in, and through. One for the big list, until the end of our time.

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

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.