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.


Go northern global…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘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

Tear Gas

Anna Feigenbaum – Tear Gas (Verso, 2017)

Late last year, I paid my first visit to Argentina, to write about the contemporary art scene in Buenos Aires. On Thursday December 14th, sizeable demonstrations were about to take place in the city centre, protesting against President Macri’s pensions reforms, which threaten to impoverish the elderly by raising the pensionable age and change the way payments are calculated. Congress was due to vote on the legislation that day, but early morning TV news reports showed several Congress members being physically prevented from entering the building.

One Congresswoman was filmed being pepper-sprayed in the face at point blank range by a police officer. The entire area around the building was surrounded by a steel wall, behind which hundreds of armed police officers in riot gear waited to greet demonstrators. I joined a large group of trade unionists and students from the National University of the Arts and we quickly found ourselves wandering through a grey mist that I mistook, initially, for smoke. In a matter of seconds, I couldn’t breathe, my eyes were streaming, and the insides of my mouth and throat were burning. It was my first experience of tear gas.

For many of us, tear gas lurks deep in folk memory. Historic episodes such as the Paris “evenements” of May, 1968, police attacks on demonstrators at the Democratic Party Congress in Detroit also in 1968, and, closer to home, the Battle of the Bogside, in Derry, in August, 1969, all continue to provide powerful evidence and dramatic images of the use of this drifting, airborne weapon.

But tear gas continues to be the crowd control method of choice for police and military forces worldwide. Recent events testifying to this include those that unfolded in Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park, in 2013, (where peaceful protesters exposed to tear gas included the famous “woman in red”, Ceydar Sungar, photographed being held down and gassed by police), and in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests and riots followed the shooting dead of Michael Brown by white police officers, in 2014. The reasons why tear gas continues to be used, and used brutally, are skilfully explored by Anna Feigenbaum in her new book.

Tear gas isn’t really a gas. It’s composed of solid matter, floating around in aerosol form, the exact mix varying with the branding of the product. Tear gas is closely related, then, to pepper spray, CS gas, Mace, and other scintillatingly-worded labels, whose contents may at some point be launched, sprayed, fired at or dropped on you or me.

Emerging from the wide ranging and horrific experiments in weaponry during World War One, where it was first used by the French and German armies to “dislodge” troops from enemy trenches, tear gas can be rightfully associated with those other, infamous, poisonous chemical weapons, like chlorine and mustard gas, all of which emerged at the same time. As Feigenbaum notes, the use of gas was justified at first as a scientific and “rational” way of achieving military advantage on the battlefield.

After all, it was much less messy than blowing humans to pieces. The eventual use of tear gas on civilians could therefore be seen in similar terms: it was easier to use and less violent than clubbing people over the head, or firing live ammunition at crowds, plus it did not kill or injure anyone – or so it was claimed. So, despite the fact that the use of all gas, including tear gas, was banned by international legislation after the end of World War One, tear gas escaped, literally, because, suddenly, the evolving peacetime weapons industry could justify, legally, its use in a non-military capacity.

But tear gas is not harmless, and it is not totally reliable, as Feigenbaum explains in detail. It was learned from its earliest use that tear gas is most effective in confined spaces – as Bogside residents learned in 1969, when it was fired by police directly into flats, causing widespread illness, including vomiting, diarrhea and nausea, in an incident the sheer size of which gave rise to an official medical investigation, published as the Himsworth Report.

Furthermore, the projectiles that release the gas can also be used as offensive weapons that can prove useful to the forces launching them. Hundreds of injuries were caused this way during the Occupy Gezi protests, for instance. And inhaling tear gas, as I know from what happened to me in Buenos Aires, induces a sense of confusion: you lose track of where you are, and what is happening around you.

The gas, which is designed to affect the respiratory organs, can also damage those of the elderly, or the very young, or people already suffering from lung disease, or chronic conditions like asthma. And last but not least, tear gas can kill. In Bahrain, in 2011, as Feigenbaum notes, referring to a report from Physicians For Human Rights, there were 34 reported deaths relating to tear gas during pro-democracy demonstrations. Tear gas is, therefore, not simply a way of controlling crowds; it has become, as Feigenbaum puts it, “an object designed to torment people, to break their spirits, to cause physical and psychological damage.”

Feigenbaum’s narrative moves between histories of its use, and its manufacture and marketing. Tear gas clouds have spread worldwide, therefore, not just because the gas evolved during periods of massive unrest such as the beginning of the end of British India in the 1920s and 30s, or the campaigns for Civil Rights in the USA during the 1960s, but also because police and military forces purchased it, insisting it was “safe,” and chemical manufacturers profited from publicising it as such.

Nor does the UK escape the worrying direction the use of tear gas takes us, from streets, squares and parks and into domestic space, to its use as a “chemical straightjacket” on the mentally ill. The case of one asylum seeker, Ibrahima Sey, who was suffering from a form of mental illness, and who died in 1996 after being sprayed in the face with CS gas, by police, after being arrested, is particularly disturbing. Yet, at the time, the use of CS gas by UK police forces was persistently defended by Home Secretaries like Michael Howard, who argued that it helped to defend police officers from the potentially violent behaviour of those they were trying to arrest.

It masquerades as a peaceful way of controlling civilians behaving badly, but as Feigenbaum argues, tear gas threatens our democratic rights. “By poisoning the air,” she writes, “Tear gas makes speaking out, together, in public, impossible.” Its use, in fact, has become increasingly militarised, as evidenced throughout Feigenbaum’s book, from her description of its use on Civil Rights marchers and innocent African-American civilians in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, where tear gas becomes a “punitive device”, used during “proto SWAT-style attacks on civilian homes,” onwards.

In Buenos Aires last December, it was obvious to all of us that tear gas was being used to soften demonstrators up immediately before further violence was unleashed in the form of water cannon and shotgun fire. Meanwhile, the business deals behind the selling and buying of tear gas are as murky as the gas itself.

But, if my limited experience of it is anything to go by, tear gas can’t stifle the will to resist. In fact, it only increases it.

– Bob Dickinson 

Small man, big politics

Marcus Rediker – The Fearless Benjamin Lay (Verso)

This is a great addition to literature addressing radicalism in the 17th and 18th centuries: Peter Linebaugh et al; The London Hanged; Many Headed Hydra and Albion’s Fatal Tree, for instance, much of it also published by Verso.

Marcus Rediker is part of this group of writers with his new book The Fearless Benjamin Lay, a man originally from Essex who was one of the first to demand a total, unconditional end to the slavery of Africans globally.

He went to one Quaker meeting in America, a gathering of friends, with a hollowed out book containing a balloon of animal skin with red fruit juice in it. At the climax of his speech he stabbed the book to release the fake blood. He wrote a tract against slavery which was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1738.

He told the printer to take the pages and publish them in any order. It did not matter which part of his dissent came first. Benjamin Lay tried to speak in new concepts that were not immediately sensible. Lay was tiny, described as ‘a dwarf’, but his courage was gigantic.

The Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade was established in 1787. There is, therefore, a very long pause between the savage and strange moment of tearing done by Benjamin Lay and the moment where slavery as a universal evil can be seen.

The first open public meeting on abolitionism, according to Andrew Shanks, was ‘in the Collegiate Church of Manchester, which was later to become Manchester Cathedral.’ The campaigner ‘Thomas Clarkson was riding back to London from Liverpool’, where he had been interviewing the crews of slave trade ships. He had been ‘collecting true horror stories from them’. In Liverpool, he was physically attacked.

In Manchester Clarkson ‘was asked to speak on the subject of abolitionism. He was by no means an experienced public speaker. But he’d studied theology […] The church was packed. And in the congregation he counted some 40 or 50 Africans. At that moment a whole new species of political campaigning was born.’

What this detail shows is that it was not in any way obvious to Quakers who preached universal love and vegetarianism that African slaves should be freed. They had done well from maritime trading that was inextricably tied up with slaving and indeed many were slave owners.

Benjamin Lay was not welcomed by many Quakers and it took years for the cause of abolitionism to become ‘common sense’. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries dissenter Christian sects were many and the practice of exile was widespread.

Quakers, Methodists and other groups sailed to be free to practice in the new world, a world ironically lit up by the French Revolution’s ‘Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite‘ and, in many cases, slave ownership.

So what? If the things Lay said were not sensible in their time, it is not because he was a madman drooling at the fringes of reason, it is because he was expanding the boundaries of that reason. Here are the best dimensions of the Abrahamic faiths: Their sheer openness to radical absolutes. But the Abrahamic faiths are so often much less than this.

This book is a great addition to both a theological and leftwing library. It it detailed and engagingly written, it will appeal to scholars of the era as well as to the interested reader.

Stones and Hard Places

Various – Cosmic Shift, Russian Contemporary Art Writing (Zed)

This is the first anthology of Russian contemporary art writing to be published outside Russia. It includes Barte de Baere, Anton Vidokle, Bogdan Mamonov, Pavel Pepperstein, Dmitri Prigov and Masha Sumnina. However, the book was perhaps unsurprisingly begun via a chance meeting at Goldsmiths College, London.

This book, on its way through its approaches to art, also explores the communism of old and the communism to come. It does so in relation to representational questions. It does so in relation to the arts of the former Soviets, with some leeway (for instance Boris Groys is included, a German who grew up in Russia).

My review, then, will suggest what use this book might have to Manchester artists, because many of the ideas in this book – ideas that are common currency to those who lived through the hard grip of communism and its eventual dropping of them into a void – are much needed by the modernistas, neo-radicals and posturers in the city. Many of them cluster around the urban art scene.

This book both is and isn’t about the ‘Various Times’ of the European mid-century. It raises the spectres of Poland, Germany, in the late 1930s and 1940s, without meaning to.

But this book is also about an emerging period of New Things and I want to suggest to you that those older Various Times are being lost in that, at the same time as they resurface in new forms: The idea that Jacobin magazine is straightforwardly the alt-left opposite to the alt-right of Vice magazine: The Good against The Bad. The White Hats out to outgun The Black Hats; be wary.

I have spoken of the managing out of postmodernism from the university elsewhere. What we are seeing is the rise of a culture which is wilfully trying to close the gap between signifier and signified. What Jodi Dean has described, via Zizek, as the capitulation to new forms of submission. Look at the article on ‘The 1917 Peasant Revolutions’ in Jacobin by Sarah Badcock and Be Aware. If facts can be presented selectively enough to become lie, then that article is a damn lie.

What we aren’t seeing in the text is a sense that the artists of the former citizens of the Tito regime brought to bear on their work, artists such as Mladen Stilinović, that, as the title of the wonderful retrospective show at Nottingham Contemporary, curated by Lina Dzuverovic explained: ‘Monuments Are Not To Ne Trusted’. Stilinović is an exemplar here, distrustful of both capitalism and communism, he existed within both as a kind of permanent dissident and his work is better for it.

More recently Engels has returned again in the statue the artist Phil Collins brought back from the Ukraine, which was ‘unveiled’ on the 16th of July, 2017. This statue was the centrepiece of the closing event of the 2017 Manchester International Festival, an event called Ceremony, a title that ties the Soviet-era statue to the Manchester band Joy Division and the general revival of the post-punk and modernist aesthetic in Britain.

Engels’ return to the surface of Manchester, now he has been ‘uncovered’, whether uncovered at the back of a factory in the Ukraine, by archeologists, or in the written textual surface of his explorations in and around Angel Meadow, invariably means a set of investments in fragments of material from the past. All archeological sites are characterised by the projections of their present moments into that past.

The statue of Engels lay unwanted because it had become a toxic symbol. All iconography associated with the former Soviets was taken down, a final dictat enshrined in legislation: In 2015 Soviet monuments became illegal. The Holodomor and the moving of ethnic Russians into satellite states, including the Ukraine are not simply ‘of the past’; they are of recent times. The Putin regime have entered the Ukraine aggressively yet again.

While these tragic occurrences are not necessarily tied to the socialism of Marx-Engels, the Engels statue, in the Ukraine, became a site of projection for all the geographical terrors of Russian military managerialism. This is why it was given away by the town of Mala Pereshchepina to Manchester. How very strange then that a YBA should then have it driven to Manchester. How odd that an artist associated with the invented new hyper-capitalist art market of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s, as the older art markets atrophied, should dabble with this particular object and its constellations of significatory dust.

All over social media, the idea that Engels had been ‘brought home’ could be seen, that the statue is ‘coming back’. It is an idea absolutely cracked with contradiction. How bizarre that in Manchester, of all places, the statue is being seen as something ‘solid’, that what had definitely melted into air appears to have become concrete again. The Joy Division, who are invoked in the name of the Phil Collins artwork Ceremony – the name is taken from one of their song titles – were seen as proto-postmodern, in that they took their name from an SS brothel, its signifier rising above the signified.

The moment of the Manchester Modernist Society (MMS) is tangled up in all of this too: MMS is characterised by rescuing the reputations of modernist buildings from the categories of, for instance, ‘slum’ in favour of celebrations of minimal or brutalist aesthetics.

At the unveiling of the Engels statue there was a banner workshop. Some of the slogans displayed there included ‘communism is coming home’ and ‘when they write our history they will say this is where it started’. This thin trope, that Manchester is a ‘revolutionary city’ can be seen in many discourses about it.

From the great book edited by Peck and Ward, City of Revolution to the brochure of the 2017 Manchester Literature Festival and even thinner cultural references in the world of pop. But Manchester’s ‘revolution’, if it can even be called that, Industrialism, was a failed radicalism. Because in Manchester there was a bourgeois revolution instead of a political one. This may not be a point to mourn, as in France the very real political revolution turned into The Terror and yet another form of Nationalist Imperialism.

The later ‘revolution’ in Manchester we might point to includes Manchester City Council who out of sheer desperation began to seek money from all kinds of non-governmental sources. This essentially became the model for the neoliberal form of governance and statecraft in the 1990s, including the re-calibration of the Labour Party as New Labour under the leadership of Tony Blair.

Many of Manchester’s cultural players were formed in this period, including many of the Manchester International Festival insiders. George Osborne, former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, greatly admires Sir Howard Bernstein, an icon of neoliberal city governance.

A new generation is emerging though. They often describe themselves as communist. The Stalin memes and hammers and sickles they deploy on social media are flexible, plastic, elastic even. They are semi-ironic. Yet at the same time, the Engels statue is seen as something solid for them and irony itself is openly disavowed. For many of them, the Engels statue is a solid icon of belief in the future. Let me be clear, the reduction of spectra of meaning into one dogmatic sign is one of the processes via which totalitarianism is delivered.

What is behind these assertions is the recent revival of the Labour Party under the current leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn himself, in many ways, has become a statue like that of Engels. The two signs became interchangeable at the close of Ceremony. But there is a tension here, as some of Manchester’s cultural players associated with Manchester International Festival are solidly New Labour, as is Manchester City Council.

The idea of Engels returning lies latent in E.P. Thompson’s reading of him as a kind of Timelord. However, Derrida writes well on how Marx and Engels actually advised for their lives after their own redundancy and death: ‘Who has ever called for the transformation of his own theses?’

Derrida explains that they didn’t simply ask for their work to be updated with new knowledge, but requested that the original knowledge be treated robustly. In this, the excessive warnings about Marx and Engels predicting history, about their work as a sealed hermetic system, as excessive and ill-read as similar charges against Hegel, need to be denied again. They need to be denied for a new generation of radicals who are erroneously making them solid.

If you do nothing else read ‘Soviet communism and the paradox of alienation’ in this book, an essay by Artemy Magun:

‘Communist government should be truly dialectical’, as opposed to ‘the pseudo dialectical liberal state’ and ‘the ideocratic dogmatism of the Soviet state’, to which (Boris) ‘Groys falsely attributes a dialectic’. Such a government ‘should be dialectical in its rationality and aesthetical in its virtuosity.’ It should be ‘harsh’, but ‘plastic at the same time, constantly preparing its own downfall and rescuing itself from it.’

This is not an argument for postmodern relativism, it is not an argument that says the young radicals are too communist, but it is an argument that says the young Corbynistas are not yet properly communist. Artemy Magun’s essay is a good place to start again.

Belgrade went from a cosmopolis in 1978 to the horrors of the 1990s in no time at all. ‘It couldn’t happen here’. Yes it could. We need the eastern semi-dissident voices more than ever as the communist sympathy increases.

Branches and Routes

Billy Bragg – Roots, Radicals & Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World (Faber & Faber)

A great deal of research has gone into this book, and also a great commitment to set out the social and political contexts of how and why this music happened and its contributions to what happened next.

The book ends where many others have started: the R’n’B boom and its derivative pop.

One strand in the phenomenon of the rapidly developing music scenes here is the – at first – delayed response in their mediation, whether in photography or graphics. Among the photos, politely staged or caught live, Bragg tellingly reproduces Music Revue posters, basically names of acts, with the headliner at the top. They seem already obsolete in conveying the different aims and energy of this new music.

He takes us through the challenges to the music business of handling money-making opportunities and the awkward attitudes and politics of some key players: Communists? CND? ‘Stars’ were by and by found, sort of in the mould of what was happening.

In the pre-blurb to the 1967 Pan paperback of Quant by Quant, we read about her first shop and business: ‘It all snowballed fantastically’. Quant by Quant has all the headlong pace, the outrageous nerve and delirious gaiety…’ ‘Mediation‘, in other words, took only a few years to catch up.

We see the same change of pace of packaging in Michael Braun’s book Love me Do, the Beatles’ Progress (Penguin 1964) where Brian Epstein, at a posh Hotel supper, suggests that he requires a new look for the group.

Yet another example of contradiction and what would be called recuperation is the demonising tone of newspaper headlines about hooligans and jiving in the street quoted by Bragg here, and the selling of rebels we see in the moody LP and EP photo-covers of the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Them and others around 1964.

Bragg is unhurried and extremely engaging in his tracing of developments and connections. In the chapter The Highbrow of Swing, he introduces us to Denis Preston. I went to look through some 78s left to me by a dear friend of this generation and read on the London American recordings label of Josh White’s ‘T.B.Blues’, rhythm accompaniment supervised by Denis Preston.

Bragg also tells us the background of another, better known producer, Joe Meek. As well as such in-depth information and assessment, there are some good one-liners. One is a David Bowie lyric perhaps incubated from a certain concert the nine-year old David Jones attended.

What this meticulous study is especially valuable for in terms of musical change is exemplified in the chapter Lonnie Opens the Door. There are three key elements combining to make a change: the guitar coming to the front of a band rather than being at the back as part of the rhythm section; there appearing no bar to playing because you can’t read music; and readily available, home-made or cheap instruments.

Because of its insights into post-war British class and the opening up of new affinities and possibilities, this book sits for me alongside these: George Melly’s Revolt Into Style (1972); Ray Gosling’s Personal Copy (1980); Jonathan Green’s Days in the Life (1988); and Joe Boyd’s White Bicycles (2005).

– Robert Galeta

English Journey

Tom Jeffreys – Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press)

In Signal Failure, the writer and critic Tom Jeffreys sets out to walk the route of HS2 on foot, from central London to Birmingham.

The future promise of high-speed travel through middle England is slowed down, with Jeffreys stopping to ‘wild camp’ en route, and to meet and engage people directly affected by HS2, from those who live and work on the route to those who are responsible for the land’s upkeep and conservation.

His initial motivation came from the notion that HS2 was a ‘vitally important project to question and analyse – on account of its scale and the number of people affected and what it might say about the country we live in’.

However, Signal Failure ends up simultaneously being about much less than this – it’s a book about the particular and the local, about places as they’re lived and experienced and, inevitably about personal journeys – and much more, posing big questions about value, power, ownership and authority.

Jeffreys wears his influences on his sleeve and places Signal Failure in a tradition of psychogeography as a (once) radical strategy of experiencing and using space. He also draws extensively on writing about travel, landscape and, to a lesser extent, nature.

Whilst he tips his hat to a lineage of heroic and often solitary male writers, Signal Failure is far from heroic – particularly striking for a book about walking and rail infrastructure are the times when Jeffreys has to be rescued by motor transport.

Jeffreys is honest about his own limitations, from his failure to complete the walk in one go, to his lack of knowledge about plants and trees, to (in a particularly memorable and miserable episode) his inexperience around horses.

What’s concerning, he suggests, is not just the lack of transparency around the origins, accountability and decision-making processes of HS2, but the fact that decisions often seem to be made by those with as little knowledge as him.

Signal Failure is partly autobiographical, describing Jeffreys’ Jewish grandparents’ journey from the city to the country, and his own journey in reverse, leaving the ‘home counties’ for university in Oxford and eventually making London home.

This is a common trajectory, yet Jeffreys also discusses a new trend, prompted by an overinflated property market – the flight of young professionals from an increasingly unaffordable capital to provincial cities – which may be accelerated by HS2.

Whilst some argue that HS2 will help bridge the north-south divide and bring London and regional cities closer together, others question who will benefit from a rail system which is already disproportionately expensive to use. Jeffreys also goes as far to suggest that trains actually cut off the passenger from the outside world, erasing the particularity of places which are passed through at speed, and resulting in a lack of depth of experience. Those he speaks to express concerns, too, that far from connecting communities, HS2 will cut through and isolate existing towns and villages.

Another concern is that despite having lived in Europe and travelled around Latin America, the rest of the UK outside of Jeffreys’ own small corner of the South East seems to be a mystery to him. His time in Birmingham – which Jeffreys visits only for the second time during his research for the book – feels rushed in comparison to earlier sections of the book and the eventual northern expansion of HS2 barely merits a mention.

Despite this, the detail of Signal Failure is impressively researched, offering historical context on the town planning that has altered the areas surrounding the route – from the suburban property speculation that shaped ‘Metroland’, to the modernist Alexandra Estate in north London to the redevelopment of post-war Birmingham – and the way in which the development and growth of places has been intertwined with histories of mobility and transport, from canals to motorways.

Signal Failure is also literary and poetic, and Jeffreys situates HS2 well in the surrounding political debates. The book is particularly strong on the nuances of landscape, acknowledging its links with culture, authority and identity, and positioning it as a place that is owned, mapped, managed and controlled.

Jeffreys challenges the accepted distinction between urban, suburban and rural ways of life, describing the Buckinghamshire town in easy reach of London where he grew up in a way many of us will recognise: ‘not quite suburbia’.

Jeffreys also acknowledges the fallacy of the man-made versus natural dichotomy: one of the most telling sentences is when he realises how lifeless and unnatural much of the countryside is, comprising bland agricultural landscapes and views already criss-crossed with pylons, roads and towns. As he notes: ‘One of the things that has struck me most immediately over the course of this walk is how unlovable parts of the countryside already seen.’

Nonetheless, at times Signal Failure adopts a slightly wistful tone, interweaving memory and a sense of loss. Jeffreys maps cultural change, celebrating the village green and cricket matches and eulogising the loss of pubs and communal experiences. Jeffreys ends by questioning whether HS2 is so important on a global scale. As Signal Failure demonstrates, perhaps it’s not the physical infrastructure of the train line, or high speed train travel itself that’s the issue – after all, countries across Europe are already connected much better than British cities – but HS2 should stop and make us think about an economic system which prioritises profit, economic growth and monetary value, and fails to take into account ‘real people’. These, says Jeffreys, are the issues of our time, and affect each of us individually, collectively, locally, regionally, nationally and globally.

– Natalie Bradbury 

In the Belly of the Empire

David Benjamin Blower – Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love (Resource Publications)

The Book of Jonah is fundamentally about a confrontation with Empire. But what sort of confrontation? This is the central concern in David Benjamin Blower’s short, meditative text on the prophet Jonah. Blower is a south Birmingham musician, theologian and activist. And his book Sympathy for Jonah: Reflections on Humiliation, Terror and the Politics of Enemy-Love is essentially a companion work to his musical The Book of Jonah.

The musical is a rendition of the Old Testament text narrated by NT Wright with Alistair McIntosh as Jonah, all set to a soundscape and musical numbers provided by Blower. It’s a weaving together of recitation and sound, the ancient and the contemporary and shows the creative influence old texts can have on re-politicised forms and content.

The meditation begins with Blower and his friends playing a gig at a local bar. They’re tired of playing through works from the upcoming musical and so decide to leap full-on into a set of sea-shanties and nautical-themed songs. Inevitably, the figure of Jonah – the ancient prophet swallowed by a whale – resurfaces in songs by the Decembrists and Tom Waits and readings from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Drifting through accordion-backed dirges in a beer-soaked bar, Blower reflects on how the story of Jonah and the whale has ‘become ubiquitous legend, filed away in everyone’s mind’. But the whale is only a small part of the story. In the Book of Jonah, God calls the prophet to enter the city of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

Jonah, instead, heads for the sea to get as far away as possible. On a boat to Tarshish, caught in a raging storm, Jonah offers himself up as dead weight to be thrown overboard. The sailors, who seem to have a fondness for Jonah, reluctantly do so.

It’s an act of self-destruction for the prophet, but then he’s swallowed by a whale and after three nights spat out on a beach. Jonah then heads inland to Nineveh, the City of Blood, to announce its destruction, its ‘overturning’.

The city does ‘turn over’, but no in the way Jonah expects or wants. The city takes hold of Jonah’s warning and goes into a state of mourning and repentance. The authorities and the people and the cattle wear sackcloth.

Jonah’s condemnation of the political centre becomes a transformation of the political centre. But Jonah isn’t happy. He wants annihilation, not transformation. He wants death, not hope. Jonah leaves Nineveh bitter and angry. On more than one occasion he asks God to strike him dead. God instead explains the radical transformation of Nineveh to him.

The text ends abruptly, and we never hear Jonah’s reply. The whale is only a small part of the story. Yet, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale holds a certain power. Jonah is a prophet in the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And although the Book of Jonah is only a small text within the Bible, taking up no more than two pages, the story of Jonah and the whale resonates across traditions, across the sacred and the secular.

For Blower, the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale carries so much sway because it strikes at the heart of what it means to be human. Quoting Carl Jung, Blower suggests that it serves as a metaphor for the ‘mysterious structures of the mind’, the division between the conscious and the unconscious and the known world from the unknown.

But, the belly of the whale also expresses our desire for safety and protection. When Jonah journeys into the abyss, it is the whale who protects him. Surface and depth, safety and terror, clarity and chaos – these are all at play in the image of Jonah in the belly of the whale. But there is also a problem. The image of Jonah and the whale can easily slide into cheap moralism.

Jonah is often cast as the disobedient individual, fleeing the will of God. And God summons the whale to put Jonah back on the good path. The story of Jonah is reduced to a morality tale. Blower also points out the lurking anti-Semitism in certain Christian readings of the text. Here Jonah is cast as the Jewish prophet who refused to communicate God’s message to non-Jews. He is disobedient and selfish and being swallowed by the whale is a deserving punishment.

Shaming Jonah and moralising about the prophet becomes a means for Christians to get one over on their sister religion. In the end, although there is a richness and depth to the image of Jonah inside the belly of the whale there are also cheap interpretations and we can easily lose focus on other elements in the text.

For Blower, the key relation is not Jonah and the whale, but rather Jonah and Nineveh. The whale needs to be spat out so that we can move on. Nineveh is the capital of the Assyrian Empire. It is the City of Blood, the centre from which pours out conquest, assimilation, death and occupation.

Blower writes, ‘their fetish for violence and their imperial spirit expressed itself in their way of decimating not only peoples, but also peoplehood, by deporting the surviving peoples of conquered lands and scattering them across the empire’.

The Assyrian Empire was on the doorstep of Jonah’s homeland. Jonah didn’t flee to Tarshish because he was disobedient, but because he was terrified. Entering Nineveh would surely be a kamikaze mission.

Blower goes as far as to compare the Assyrian Empire with Nazi Germany, suggesting that Jonah’s appearance in Nineveh is akin to a Jewish person interrupting a Nuremburg Rally in order to condemn the Nazi regime.

The comparison feels a bit hyperbolic, like a textual version of Godwin’s law where any online discussion will sooner or later involve a comparison to Hitler. But perhaps this is not so far-fetched. In 1938 the Hungarian poet Mihály Babits re-imagined the Book of Jonah, with Jonah as a prophet against the creeping fascism of Europe. Nineveh serves as a sort of cipher. And Blower sees it as both Empire and its Other.

Another, more contemporary, comparison is used here: The West and ISIS. On the one hand Nineveh represents our ‘own order with its history of imperialism, its economic power, its military dominance, and its citizenry organized around a consumerist pattern of life: the neo-liberal order that is drunk on oil and falling down the stairs’.

Nineveh is the ‘power under which we live’. On the other hand Nineveh represents the enemy and its counter-brutality. The city of Mosul in northern Iraq is built on the foundations of Nineveh.

Mosul is also one of the cities occupied by ISIS and in 2014 ISIS militants destroyed the mosque housing the tomb of Jonah. These comparisons between ancient Nineveh and modern Mosul are raw and real. There is a connective tissue between story of Jonah and today. And whether we view Nineveh as our ‘own order’ or the site of particular brutality – and surely it should be both – the terrible mission of the prophet Jonah becomes apparent.

When Jonah does enter Nineveh it’s not as some sort of Protestant missionary imploring people towards religious conversion, but as ‘a Hebrew prophet confronting the politics of empire and the diabolical greed of imperial violence’.

Jonah’s confrontation with Nineveh is short. He enters the city and announces that in forty days it will be destroyed. But the city immediately humbles itself and exchanges its weapons for sackcloth. Jonah’s interruption brings the empire to a halt. What sort of confrontation is this? For Blower it is the radical politics of enemy-love. Jonah walks unarmed into the City of Blood and brings it down without violence. It’s an act of faith that Jonah is not entirely in control of.

Blower terms it the ‘Jonaic Interruption’. The imperial clock has stopped and a new world is possible. The Kingdom of God in the here and now. It’s an imperative that Blower takes up. ‘Grass roots enemy-love decentralizes power’, Blower writes:

‘It develops solidarity among the people, which cultivates resilience and resistance to the oppressive interests of the powers at the centre of empire. […] Grass roots enemy-love enables us as ordinary people to become political agents shaping the world’.

– Mark Rainey