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.


‘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’, 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

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.

Human Error as Truth

Essayism – Brian Dillon; This Little Art – Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters – Dan Fox; The Hatred of Poetry – Ben Lerner (all Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Fitzcarraldo Editions are beautifully made, with their matt cover and drop caps serif typeface, with their embossed bell logo. Fitzcarraldo publish novels and other things, but I have just read a brace of their essayistic books, with their white covers. Four of them: Essayism by Brian Dillon; This Little Art by Kate Briggs; Pretentiousness, Why It Matters by Dan Fox and The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner.

These editions look like European editions. They talk like European editions, perhaps with the addition of a little English punk attitude, in the case of Ben Lerner’s book on poetry. In a time of Europhobia in Britain this is all the more reason to buy and read the essayist Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Kate Briggs contributes a wonderful book (sort of) on translation called This Little Art. She begins in a section of Thomas Mann’s genius novel, The Magic Mountain. It is a dramatic opening, it grabs you and pulls you in. But the story twists into that of Helen Lowe-Porter’s translation of Thomas Mann and her villification after her death.

‘No poem is intended for the reader’ Benjamin once wrote, in his own meditation on translation, but Briggs points out how the ‘little art’ of translation carries big risks. The underpaid, unacknowledged and ignored craftspeople that are translators carry huge burdens and risks along with their joys. Rilke’s translations into English by J.B. Leishman have been similarly villified. These are stigmas that travel beyond death. I have a copy of ‘The Rilke of Ruth Speirs’. The title says, essentially, ‘the proper stuff, not that other shit’.

A dangerous game for no stakes, this is truly the zone of the ‘committed’. Briggs cites a translation of Deleuze by Hugh Tomlinson. Coincidentally, my friend Robert Galeta translated some of the Deleuze editions after Hugh could no longer do it. He tells me, ‘I went grey doing it’. Imagine then being pilloried for your efforts.

In medieval times a Bard could sing a Queen or King into 1000 years of hell. In an unliterate culture they made songs that would outlive the mortal life of its targets. It could put an entire family into a ‘spell’ that persisted for generations. Here I sing Briggs into the opposite, into a song that I hope will carry this book through many reprints and editions.

Briggs describes translating Barthes. But she is navigating Paris, going to libraries, looking at Barthes old apartment, thinking about the people she sees, feeling, reflecting. Briggs puts shoes on, cooks, teaches. She is a human being. The chapters of this book both are and are not about translation, because like translation itself they draw on all the skills and experiences a human has, right to the edge of their consciousness. Because of this, I am reminded of my own reading of psychoanalytical texts often, when reading Briggs.

Kate Briggs is an explorer of her own under-read zones, as well as her over-read exterior, which is littered with Barthes and Benjamin on reading lists as though first year undergrads – and often many of their university tutors – straightforwardly know what those texts contain.

Briggs describes Robinson Crusoe making a table for the first time in his life. I have done this, I am the kind of pretentious pervert who will make furniture and fail fifteen times before getting something that works. It is the only way to learn properly. But like a bad translator, I am failing the original here. You just have to, in the case of Briggs’ book, read the original. It is deeply, velvety rich and utterly life-affirming.

Brian Dillon’s Essayism is also a cornucopia of sorts. It argues for the flaws of the essay, for its speculative, hedging, unfinished nature, as its virtue. This is a theme of these editions. That doing scholarship and writing is not something undertaken by Uberhumans beamed down from Planet Academic with everything and some other stuff that nobody knows yet uploaded into their swollen skulls. Out students don’t live in this reality enough. Academics don’t speak honestly about that reality enough.

Ben Lerner’s book on poetry argues that we might engage with poetry through the negative. This isn’t quite Hegel via the Frankfurt School, the negative he describes is closer to the word ‘HATE’ written in white paint on a leather biker jacket. After being immersed in intolerably polite Manchester Literature Festival events, this is a wonderful read. Who says the literature scene must be polite clapping and cups of tea? At this point in history, why wouldn’t the discussion of literature that is often so fluffy it barely touches the world be characterised only by seething invective? However, this is to reduce Lerner’s argument a great deal. He begins hating poetry and urges us, in a Beckett-like way, to ‘hate better’. In between these almost identical poles there lies a fecund meditation on poetry.

Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit prefigures Pretentiousness, by Dan Fox. This book is also very un-British, as it calls for fabulation in the face of the British climate of dumbed-down, stylistically lumpen miserablism. If I have a worry here it is that the book dovetails too easily with ‘play’ and its origins in horrors such as Playpower by Richard Neville. They didn’t play where I grew up, they were slowly ground down in twelve hour shifts, six days a week, and that was down to another very British thing, class. But then I know from emerging out of the working classes that you get called a ‘clever bastard’. Is there an equivalent phrase in French? I don’t know.

But these books make you think. They don’t just drone information at you. These books take risks. They blend serious scholarship with a human voice. British academia has for too long been a blend of its past in an empirico-logico-utilitarianism that does not really exist outside of its texts and its present in an Americanised vaguely po-mo ‘liberalism’. These books are not some middle way between the two, they just ignore all that and begin where they stand. For that alone I applaud all the authors under review here.

This does not mean they are uncitable, dangerous curveballs from the world beyond Truth. It means that they are a little more Real than all the other rubbish pouring out of academic publishers. This is not to denigrate the few percent of incredible, lightning work emerging from academic publishers. But it is a percentage. You know the other books too well: The literature review with an argument imposed on it, rather than an argument being made from long messy immersion in the world, as the scholarship was done.

We are going to need Fitzcarraldo Editions on this island much more in times to come.

The Poetry After Auschwitz

Jennifer M. Hoyer – The Space of Words, Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (Camden House)

Theodor Adorno famously stated that to ‘write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno later revised this statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics.

But he didn’t renege, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

In some ways, Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She did both. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz, she wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the incommensurable horror of the camps. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

However, the point Adorno was making with his quotation was and is correct, even though it is more often misconstrued than it is correctly deployed. Adorno really meant Wagner, Mahler and all that was ‘poetic’ but rotten in Germany, that then became rotten in Hollywood: The cultural inflations of ‘beauty’, emerging from the rural idyll, that are then inscribed as ‘natural’, before this ‘nature’ is re-inscribed, finally, as a measure for who lives or dies.

Adorno was right, all that was rotten in Hollywood continued in an unbroken line. For Adorno, World War Two didn’t really end. It continued right through into the wars in Indochina, Vietnam and Cambodia… Now Donald Trump is in power.

Jennifer Hoyer explains that Sachs’ poetry is best not viewed as a set of open signifiers, emerging from an event, but as spaces opened by the words themselves. Gaston Bachelard is given as an example, that his poetics of space are also the space of poetry in Sachs’ work. It is not merely imagistic, it opens up a zone in the mind that is perhaps closer to occult practice than it is to poetry. Write and rite are one.

Hoyer includes a chapter on Sachs’ explorations of the Merlin myth. She piles version on version until they become a kind of occult map, until all the stray fragments have been aligned and transfigured, in some enormous mystical-linguistic Tetris game.

Hoyer’s chapter on ‘space after the abyss’, the space after Auschwitz, where simply ‘going on’ is a question, rather than a given, explores the redemptive dimensions of Sachs’ work too. But this is negative theology, it does not inhabit some fake positivistic philosophy of rescue.

Hoyer cites Rudolf Hartung in 1947, describing how the poetry after the war was ‘untimely’. Hartung returns to Adorno’s concerns about whether making poetry could be moral at all, in yet another time of the greatest material need.

Hartung had Gottfried Benn’s poetry of supposed aesthetic timelessness in his sights. In any case, it fails. What is meant to make Benn’s work ‘timeless’ puts it in orbit around a collapsing star.

Sachs’ work directly mirrors this gravitational implosion. She crushes the protons and electrons of ordinary language to form charged, neutron constellations, in colours we have never seen before. Tiny, but impossibly dense, many of the later poems are the afterimages of the collapse of the monstrous swell of Benn and others, and their cultural elevation of nihilism to art.

Benn’s work, often influenced by his time as a physician dissecting corpses, views humanity as simply pathos and disease.

Sachs, although she describes the present as a ‘wound ripped open’, sees the torn curtain of bloody flesh as proof of the inevitability of life, not death:

His pen, his scalpel cut. The writer of the Zohar surgically drew blood, pulsing, from the unseen circulation of the stars, gathered in a cup… the words, the homesick sparks. The grave split open, the alphabet arose, each letter was an angel, each a crystal shard, each held refracted droplets dating from creation. These sang. And there, within, glowed ruby, jacinth, lapis lazuli so many scattered seedlings not yet stone.

As you can see, Sachs’ post-war poetry also tried to pull what was left of the Jewish traditions through the eye of a needle.

Through the present moment that had been reduced to a grim corridor, and out into the light of another diaspora. It doesn’t just will the future into being, it returns like an avenging angel from that future.

This is the difference between poetry and the occult, or mysticism. As Hoyer puts it, Sachs’ texts ‘are often written in the present tense and destabilize the boundaries between then and now…’

Hoyer’s book also reconnects Sachs’ early work to the later work. Most studies focus on the holocaust poetry, but Hoyer’s places Sachs’ work in a broader picture. The themes that run through what are often seen as two distinct and separate bodies of work are painstakingly traced. Hard, wearying, detailed academic toil has clearly gone into producing this book.

The result is more than admirable, and fascinating. There is too little space to even begin with the details, but through them the richness of Sachs’ work is clear. It has a nuclear half-life of one thousand years.

Hoyer also aligns Sachs’ project to the stateless Jews after WW2. Sachs’ work makes ‘a state’ for the stateless. In the spaces of words she opens up, in the ash and smoke, after WW2. But bleakly, those without a state now are the Palestinians.

Adorno was not wrong, but Sachs’ work is open enough to weep and wail for all.

Adorno’s comments on poetry after the camps concerned ‘reification’, that the abstract is made concrete in a bad order. Well before Foucault, he described the world as a kind of open prison.

But Sachs the mystic might see the prison as Adorno’s own, ‘so many scattered seedlings, not yet stone.’


Andrew Shanks has re-translated a lot of Sachs’ poems. The Penguin Modern European Poets edition presented very muted translations. Shanks’ versions are wide-eyed and alive. You can find them here:

Holding On To A Dear Life

Various – A Jar of Wild Flowers, Essays in Celebration of John Berger (Zed Books)

It’s tempting to think that we no longer have figures like Goethe, Rosa Luxemburg, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt or Adorno. But John Berger was their equivalent, as was Zygmunt Bauman, who also died recently. Berger may not have made work that sounded or looked like any of those people, but why would he?

His work is influenced by them all to a greater or lesser extent, but he rarely came on like a card-carrying German Idealist philosopher. It is there though, pulsing up from the past.

But now we no longer have John Berger.

Manchester Review of Books covered Tom Overton’s book on Berger, Landscapes, some time ago. This book though, arriving for Berger’s 90th, not long before he passed away, is a collection of tributes.

Berger’s life spans much of the 20th and some of the 21st century, emerging after the second world war, alongside the British New Left. But he carried on, becoming, if anything, more radical the older he got.

I remember reading an essay on Bruegel the Elder and ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Berger compared the social world in the paintings to our own, implausibly, I thought, at first, until he explained that the lack of a centre, of a focal point, was a description of hell. He compared them to a CNN news bulletin.

It was utterly brilliant: So simple, so counterintuitive; yet so completely correct.

I also remember reading Hold Everything Dear when it came out and getting a sense that he had jettisoned many of the pointless courtly dances of writing. In it, he states, at one point, bluntly, that yes, he is still a Marxist. At the same time, the book is filled with poetry.

Zed Books are a co-op and this seems very appropriate, part of the tribute of the edition. Berger’s leftism never departed from him, it seemed to get stauncher, in inverse proportion to his generosity of spirit.

In London, Berger hung out with exiles who knew a lot about art, but cared nothing for art markets, and in fact were completely scornful of them. Berger was highly critical of the art market all his life, a tradition carried on nicely by Julian Stallabrass, who puts out books with empty squares where the accompanying picture should be, because the copyright is locked down by capitalist cartels.

The titles of the pieces in this collection are just single words, grouped under a themed heading. For instance a section called The Colours of the Cosmos has titles which run ‘Graphite’, ‘Hay’, ‘Fire’, ‘Milk’, ‘Blood’, ‘Forest’, ‘Toast’ and ‘Oil’.

There’s something straightforward and poetic about this, as there was about Berger’s work, and Jean Mohr’s, who also contributes the moving foreword to this collection.

But the universal and particular are one here too. Toast, blood, fire, oil. The cosmos and your immediate surroundings are part of the same vast continuum. But the search for god, or in this case, the god particle at CERN, is pointless, if the mortal lives of all cannot be lived blessedly.

For Berger, as Amarjit Chandan puts it, and beautifully, the ‘existential angst’ is ‘further expanded with the extent of multiplied horizons’.

Put more practically though, this way of titling pieces avoids the usual contents page in a collection, where each author’s long title, well-crafted in isolation, immediately drowns in all the others. This is refreshing.

Editor Yasmin Gunaratnam mentions that Berger met Orwell while working for New Statesman and that some of his style of argument is passed on from Orwell. This simple fact strikes me hard. Just that plain fact, that they met, and the continuum back into the past, into Orwell’s time, or rather Eric Blair’s time, in the Imperial police in India, on the road with ‘vagrants’.

Suddenly I cannot stop thinking about the simultaneous closeness and distance of history. But it is ordinary, too, as Hans Jürgen Balmes shows, in his section ‘Graphite’. He remembers Berger lighting a candle during a powercut and then reading. Suddenly I’m in some place with friends, on a break. Anywhere. The pencil line, fragile, shaking, easy to erase, is history.

Rema Hammami then writes about John Berger’s text messages. The facile notion that somehow newer forms of inscription are profane or less serious, although it is faster or more quotidian, is completely exploded by this section. The SMS message is a fugitive pencil line too.

A very interesting dimension of Berger’s life that is becoming much clearer in this moment of national breakdown is his decision to move to a rural, remote town in France and live there. There are parallels with Henri Lefebvre here, the great urbanist who in fact began in the landscape and life of the French peasant. But Berger also seems to mirror that other very British exile, Robert Graves. Part of the establishment, but pacifist, avant garde and totally dissenting. They left the island and stayed away. Never has this made more sense than now.

You can never escape, of course, in France there is Le Pen, but you can remove yourself to the edges in order to look back in again, awry.

Nick Thorpe and Iain Chambers turn the book towards migration. A Seventh Man is now a book about all migrant journeys. Decades old, it is as contemporary as the breaking news and as universally intense as Homer. Rochelle Simmons’ section explores Berger’s use of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic to open up the politics of race. Simmons unflinchingly points out the ‘limitations’ of Berger’s ‘propaganda by deed’ – in this case donating his Booker Prize money to the Black Panthers – at the same time as celebrating it. Yahia Yakhlef’s final chapter ‘Courage’ makes clear Berger’s commitment.

Gunaratnam writes about Berger’s comments on the photographer Chris Killip’s work, in Thatcher’s Britain, describing it as a series of views of a -20 degree winter where people simply insulate themselves in any way they can to get through.

The same horror is with us again. Out on to the streets you go, and if you are lucky, with a tent or sleeping bag. She describes Howard Becker’s comments on Berger and Mohr’s work, how it gives you what I call in my head ‘truthness’.

There’s a richness to this collection. It unfolds, yields, gives. Nikos Papastergiadis contributes a wonderful section on landscapes, art and creation and how it connects with the human social world. The essay by Gavin Francis on A Fortunate Man is wonderful. It’s one of Berger and Mohr’s most moving books, and, perhaps not surprisingly, one that I rarely see for sale in book shops.

Who will replace the likes of Berger, Bauman and those taken far too soon, such as Gillian Rose? There is much to hold dear here for the art school. There is a generational cliff edge as those of Berger’s generation and the one after pass into retirement. The arts have been coloured pink for a long time, but it is not a natural state of affairs. It can and will change, and now we see how quantifiable outcomes and instrumentalised rationales affect all but the most resistant arts institutions.

However, what’s truly great about this anthology is that it is almost completely multi-purpose. It is of relevance to everyone in the humanities as well as the arts, and to the general reader interested in the new century and the one that has passed and how they connect: This is an electrically passionate collection.

Letters on the Inhuman

Peter Sloterdijk – Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger (Polity)

Sloterdijk tackles Heidegger’s Letter On Humanism, arguing that the wise have gone as nobody reads ‘the thick books’ anymore. Being and Time is undoubtedly one of them. Sloterdijk ‘begins again’ with Heidegger.

Heidegger began again with ‘our unfolding’ as sentient beings, suggesting that we can’t even ask a question about this ‘unfolding’ without an ‘essence’ coming before it.

This extension business is very Aristotelian. But for Heidegger, this relation ‘between essence and extension’ cannot be expressed’, but humans can be guided to the point where the ‘myth of extended life’ that rules it can be seen.

This ‘myth of extended life’, for Sloterdijk, is ‘Humanism’, but Humanism is a community fantasy, albeit a crucial one. Sloterdijk argues – and argues it more directly elsewhere – that the ‘in-between’ of shared language and community is really all that there is.

But Sloterdijk goes further, arguing in Rules For the Human Park that Aristotle’s ‘zoon politikon’, the political animal, should be nurtured in the face of contemporary chaos. For this advocacy, of a kind of contemporary reservation – and an open discussion about genetics – Habermas called Sloterdijk a fascist and Sloterdijk called it Habermas in return. Neither of them are Nazis, but only one of them has worn the uniform of the Third Reich.

‘Civilisation’, we can now see, fragments so very easily. Because a big part of its mythicalness is that it is not formed only out of bonds of love, but at least equally out of the threat of disintegration.

Violence is always already inside community. Having your own history buried as the vanquished remains essential to seeing the whole of historical discourse as untruth in support of the victor.

Sloterdijk’s essay on religion, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, also published recently by Polity, argues that the confession and the internal threat of real violence is what forms us. It is the crucible of ‘civilised’ being. This is also, then, the in-between of shared situations and our ‘tuning’ through those shared situations.

The covering, or in some cases decimation (kill every one in ten) or annihilation (wipeout) of what Deleuze calls ‘minor discourses’ in the name of community is strangely what calls on their truth. This is a similar thing to Foucault’s view that a politics of right and taming do not fully account for apparatuses of power.

In Heidegger’s case, the historical elisions are nauseating. Experiencing ‘estrangement’ of this sort is essential to illuminating the dimension of history that is untruth. The dialectical view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts only in this way, but it is neither accurate, a mirror of the real, nor does it predict history, Hegel never claimed it to either.

Heidegger’s mystical search for an ‘essence’ before extension and his refusal to connect the two has its parallel in his interminable walking in forests. Both are abdications from the responsibility to politics and ethics. Sloterdijk often puts this back by illuminating it as an empty space. This is not some mystical void to be passed through, but a dangerous gap in the story-fabric of Humanism.

This is an absolutely canonical collection for Heidegger studies, the orthodoxy may not think so, but the heretics always had the best arguments there anyway.

Sloterdijk is wrong on one point though: The wise have not gone from us while he still reads and writes the big books.