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 seem.’

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

Clouds in the Silver Lining

Wolfgang Streeck – Buying Time (Verso)

When reading Streeck the more lively commentary must play out as in-head subtitling.

John Grahl, reviewing Anwar Shaikh’s thousand-page Capitalism: Competition, Conflict, Crises (Oxford UP) explains that since 2008, ‘mainstream economics’ has ‘become an open scandal.’

I well remember my own suggestions, before 2007, that capitalism was empty and could fall through at any moment, being rebuffed by most people around me.

Streeck gives us the detail of that collapse as a series of macro-explanations of shifts in the fabric of state-capitalism. But you are going to have to supply the commentary that ‘they fucked it up and got away with it, again, the bastards’, yourself.

Tim Holst Celik reviewed the first edition of Streeck’s book for Thesis Eleven in 2016. He explained Streeck’s main thesis well, that ‘the state has changed since the 1970s’, that ‘the tax state (Steuerstaat) gradually transformed into a debt state (Schuldenstaat), in which “a large, possibly rising, part of its expenditure” is raised “through borrowing rather than taxation”‘. Streeck ‘sees “neoliberal reform” as absolutely integral to the transformation from the tax state to the debt state.’

And so 2008, possibly the last chance we had to force this mad zero-sum game to end. 2008, the chance we all missed, every last one of us. If you can face rewinding to what was possibly the end of the world, Streeck’s book is just one of a handful that really do macro-analytical justice to the present economic moment for us deux-mille huitards.

Anwar Shaikh’s book Capitalism is one of the others. It makes a great counterpart to Streeck’s work. Grahl explains that ‘Shaikh advances corrected or contrasting views, supported by statistical evidence, of each central problem with which he deals, to construct an alternative account of the workings of capitalism and recent economic developments, particularly in the United States.’

Here is a critique of political economy albeit ‘without the revolutionary social and historical perspective of Capital…’ Grahl claims that the ‘scope and scale’ of Shaikh’s work is ‘such as to invite comparison with Marx’s Capital itself, and it is a measure of Shaikh’s accomplishment that it appears by no means absurd to apply that standard.’

Streeck also attempts nothing short of a classical, popular critique of political economy. Celik, in reviewing it, wishes to unpack and deepen ‘the book’s relatively undertheorized conception of the state and political legitimation.’ He says that Streeck needs more of ‘the general pessimism’ of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse. A second edition has since arrived with a new set of introductions, although Streeck really just holds to his original line more firmly.

I am not concerned that Streeck is undertheorized at all. His theorizing is supple and rigorously underpinned. Streeck’s book is utterly necessary for anyone serious on the left. What concerns me is the poverty of theory generally in the face of our current historical ruptures: That all the OECD data in the world surely cannot provide a picture of the historical ‘free radicals’ currently ricocheting around the world.

Streeck and Habermas – neo-Kantian heir and heretic of the Frankfurt School – circled each other like stags in mating season over some of the issues contained in this book, without actually headbutting.

We could try, dialectically, to see the clouds in the silver lining, as Celik wishes, but the most depressing dimension of all of this is that none of them, or their critics, Streeck, Shaikh, have a clue what is going to happen next, and the rifles are coming out of their lockers all over. It isn’t just time that capitalism buys, it is gated compounds, mercenaries and arms.

It is no coincidence that Adorno & Horkheimer switched from economics to culture as the Weimar Republic collapsed. Here and now, sadly, identity, belonging and citizenship are the places where we might find the real ‘data’ we need to scry the future.

But Streeck ends with a classic bit of leftwing naive hope, arguing for a new Bretton Woods agreement for contemporary Europe. But Bretton Woods gave us the IMF as well as the funds to reconstruct and a Keynesian geist.

Those people had been through two world wars. Our ‘leaders’ are simply no longer there, and the disgusting failure to keep any of them in check across and after 2008 is part of the reason why they continue to pull all of us into a new and deadly vortex.


Grahl, John (2017) ‘A New Economics’ in New Left Review 104.

Holst Celik, Tim (2016) Review Essay in Thesis Eleven, Vol. 137 No.1, 106–120

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.


Jamie Woodcock – Working the Phones (Pluto)

Everyone should read Jamie Woodcock’s book. It is a covert work on call centres. It explodes several myths. The first is about post-industrial labour and ‘office work’ being some sort of Hegelian historical progress, as though the next silhouette in the chimp parade is wearing a suit, tie and headset.

This work is as brutal as factory labour, but it focuses its regime on the psyche first, rather than the body first. Of course, once the subject is defeated, the symptoms will then map onto the body, as they do onto the mind in excessive bodily labour.

This book also shows the benefits of covert ethnography and gives the lie to this weird idea that if everyone knows you are doing it, and the people you come into contact with finally view and edit the work for you, then it is all somehow ‘ethical’.

The grim, horrible, no future life Woodcock describes more than justifies covert work. But it should not just be ‘accepted’, on occasions, where it is needed. No, there should be departments specialising in this kind of work, particularly since the decline of print media and the collapse of high quality investigative journalism.

There is a whole hidden world of call centre activism, where infiltrators gain jobs to scope places out and eventually expose or respond to their abuses. So, Woodcock’s method is not just a response to workplace surveillance, it is utterly appropriate to the subject.

The part where Woodcock describes managers who would sack employees for not singing in team building exercises gave me the chills. I attended an event as an employee of the Halifax plc, soon to be HBOS. Everyone had to sing ‘nobody does it better, Halifax you’re the best.’

The event was filmed and it turned out that two of us refused to sing and I was one of them. We were later shown the video in a massive open plan office, containing all the assembled employees of marketing. The camera honed in on the two refuseniks, tight lipped and solemn.

I was supposed to feel ashamed, but I felt proud. Six years later the entire banking group crashed through the floor and so to have sung ‘nobody does it better’ would have been a lie. At this hotel away day many of the ‘singers’ had slept with each other behind the backs of their husbands and wives. It was an astonishing event in many ways.

There was no resistance there, one simply had to leave. The Halifax even had its own fake union. But here, Woodcock describes the tactics of resistance in call centres and they are fascinating. One activist strategy in particular sticks in my mind: It involves turning the tables completely on the call centre and the concept of ‘cold calling’; activists will phone the call centre en masse at a particular time and give the worker information on how to resist. This will then be followed up with a mailout or flyering exercise.

But this book isn’t just of interest to the call centre worker or sociologist, it is relevant to all 21st century labourers who have targets imposed on them and zero hours contracts. It is relevant to all who do sales jobs.

Woodcock describes the mind games of being told to sing along with Kermit the Frog. It is not enough just to sing, but to appear to enjoy it to the point where the performance and reality blend. The ever-present supervisor is pacing the floor, like an overseer on horseback. The 1-2-1 meetings are simply formalised, interrogative bullying.

The infantile culture that can be found in places such as these is not just a sticking plaster, it is an intrinsic part of the regime. I am reminded of the scene on the bus at the end of Dirty Harry, ‘row row row your boat, gently down the stream…’

Our horrifying rightward political shift is trying to normalise this kind of work and describe those who complain using terms such as the recent ‘snowflake’.

Well, maybe we do need to toughen up, but in order to throw the situations described in Working the Phones back in the faces of those who set them up.

The Dreaded C Word

Boris Pasternak – Doctor Zhivago (Vintage)

A great thing has happened, many of the educated young are left-wing again. Not only that, they are unafraid of the word ‘communist’.

This comes with dangers though. I sense that in the rush to embrace a c-word even more offensive to the polite middle classes than the original, some old lessons have been forgotten. Or rather, some material has been edited out of the script, as always.

It is timely then, that Vintage have just re-issued a slew of Russian classics, including The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman and Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. They are beautifully designed, sumptuously sleeved and reasonably-priced.

Doctor Zhivago is of course better known for its film version. But it is well worth rewinding and reading the original. Here, the romantic aesthetics and soundscapes were yet to be imposed on the narrative. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and the film could not be shot there, so it was made in Spain, in 1965, where Francoism was only just beginning to thaw.

There are things to be read in this, for sure. David Lean’s film returns us to ‘the human story’ under the Bolshevik ideology, the ‘universal’ of love that is so often co-opted as a story to deflate revolutionary requirements. We should definitely be wary of these things, but not just because they limit action, for this is the same romantic bloom that obscured the fascist sympathies of Wallis Simpson and Prince Edward.

Doctor Zhivago contains other things to be wary of. Things that are perhaps being missed by some of the New Left people I meet. In a scene in the middle of the novel, among seeders and threshers, an old lady pulls the switch to shunt trains. In between this, she knits to supplement her meagre wages with other activities, something known to most people in those times, and now these. The lines of telegraph poles stretch off in all directions…

A conversation begins between the Doctor and Samdevyatov. Samdevyatov objects to the assertion that a ‘Marxist has to be a mush-minded driveller’, arguing that Marxism is a hard science with an objective view.

The Doctor is pensive. ‘Marxism has too little control of itself to be a science’ he replies. ‘I don’t know of a movement more isolated within itself and further from the facts than Marxism.’ These remarks are treated by Samdevyatov as ‘the whimsicalities of a witty eccentric’. He chuckles and does not bother to reply. The silence in his mouth contains millions of unmarked graves.

These things are not highlighted here to ask for a turn away from Marxism. They are pinpointed to ask for a version of it in the spirit of the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and actually, a dialectics which properly understands how Hegel really figures in all of this.

The theoretically-inclined might get Henri Lefebvre’s little book Dialectical Materialism, republished by Minnesota University Press in 2009.

But the less theoretically minded could do much worse than return to this grand, stylish novel, and others in the series, Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman particularly.

On Yer Bike!

JD Taylor – Island Story (Repeater)

It’s strange how ideas of distance change with context. I consider a train journey of three hours or more to be gruelling, a long slog – to travel from Manchester to, say, Plymouth, would be an exceptional undertaking, only to be done in the rarest of circumstances. Say that to an American, though, and they’ll marvel at how compact Britain is, how close together and well-connected its towns and cities are.

In the UK, however, this distance is reinforced by other boundaries, many of them going beyond the geographical to encompass the socioeconomic and political, the cultural and the imaginary – as well as the distance from London, whether physical or perceived. As a born, bred and educated resident of the South East – more specifically, the southern reaches of the capital – JD Taylor’s mission to explore ‘The Island’ by bike, documented in his recent book Island Story, comes across as both admirable and necessary, yet also sometimes naïve.

To start with, the obvious. Taylor’s journey ticks many of the boxes of the conventional heroic male travelogue: he’s a lonesome traveller, setting out on a slightly misguided trip on a wonky bike which he appears to barely know how to ride – let alone maintain, something in which he gradually becomes self-sufficient. He camps clandestinely underneath the stars, at the sides of roads, in fields and in woods, relatively free to pitch up wherever he chooses. Elsewhere, he relies on the kindness of friends, strangers and acquaintances, not just to offer a bed for the night, and perhaps a meal, but to share conversation and an insight into everyday lived perspectives.

He has a vague idea of learning more about the country of which he is a part, at the same time as seeking answers to some pretty big questions around the nature of political, cultural and class identity, Britishness and belonging. So far so Beatnik, and Taylor is adept at literary and poetic description of place.

Yet Taylor is also a philosopher and a thinker, and he challenges many of the conventional narratives of the island, going beyond the surface story to reveal the concealed and the hidden. Visiting the vast, low-rise redbrick council estates on the outskirts of cities, as well as market towns, sleepy villages and far-flung cottages, he suggests it’s the former that’s more typical of the way in which most of the islanders live: in touching distance of both city and country, but somehow removed from both of them.

In the eastern flatlands, he tries to go beyond the stories in the headlines, seeking out the often-exploited foreign vegetable pickers upon whose labour the country depends for cheap food. Taylor also disrupts certain narratives about the north-south divide: for example, he finds Plymouth more like a Yorkshire town than the gateway to Cornwall, and struggling seaside/estuary towns mean the counties of Kent and Essex fail to fit easily into the contented, comforting ‘pleasantness’ he encounters in well-heeled commuter towns in the home counties.

Kent too, he notes, seldom appears in accounts of the miners’ strikes of the 1980s, despite its collieries playing a major part. The North East, Taylor realises, is very different not just from the South East but from the North West; the South West is very different again from the concentrated wealth and commerce of the South East.

Taylor is clearly well-versed in the historical and cultural background of the island, telling its tales through key figures and moments from the past lives of places, as well as their literature and music. He brings out local particularity, difference and strangeness, from regional mutations of language to the continuation of old customs.

Yet he also highlights a lot of sameness in experience and the built landscape from place to place – the book contains a surprising number of visits to McDonalds, as well as written detours about vast, anonymous shopping centres. He captures the complexity and contradictions in the island’s history – not least in its long heritage of migration.

At times, the account becomes sheer wide-eyed wonder – Taylor’s eyes are open not just to urban experience, but to landscape, wildlife and nature – particularly in extended descriptions of Scotland and its islands. What’s significant about the book is that wherever he goes Taylor seeks out people and listens to them, to their concerns and experiences.

Many of them have understandable reasons for feeling disenfranchised and disempowered, economically, politically and culturally – they are what the mass media would term, in the acronym of the moment, ‘JAMs’, or the financially ‘just about managing’, feeling that the norms and values of their class are shifting and under threat from influences beyond their control.

The book can’t help but be critical of the political, social and economic factors that have led to and entrench poverty – one of its overriding messages, captured in a quote from film-maker Patrick Keiller, is that Britain is a rich country populated by poor people – many examples of which are encountered and relayed in Island Story.

Island Story is political without becoming polemical and philosophical without becoming inaccessible. There’s humour in it. There’s also lots of Taylor himself – not just opinion, but well-balanced aspects of autobiography, drawing on the migration across the Irish sea, intercity moves and life trajectories of his own family.

Most importantly, Taylor seeks, finds and highlights the occasional glimmer of hope and dares to suggest some collective solutions. This part of the book is sometimes challenging in its idealism. Some of the suggestions are already in place in pockets – Taylor advocates co-operatives for their model of worker ownership and democracy. Others are already being debated in certain political parties and think tanks, such as a universal basic income, collective ownership and the nationalisation of infrastructure. Other suggestions are more utopian or seem more far-fetched and are less likely to go down well with the populace, such as direct democracy and compulsory voting.

There’s a poignancy to reading Island Story. The book was written, and its journey undertaken, before the 2015 general election and when the EU referendum was merely a blot on the horizon, although in many ways its findings seem prescient and go some way towards explaining the result.

It was published and promoted (Taylor set out by bike once more for a book tour of the country in the summer of 2016) in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit result, when many were in shock yet before the cumulative upset of Donald Trump’s election as US President. Island Story is an important education, both for Taylor and for the reader. After Brexit, the media has sought to scapegoat certain sections of the population – the young/the old, the rural/the metropolitan, the northern/the southern, the working-class and the affluent.

There’s also been much written about so-called echo chambers, the gap between the worldview of the individual, reinforced by the perspectives by which they surround themselves, and the way in which people live and think beyond their own immediate little corner of the world.

What Island Story suggests to me is that we should all be doing what Taylor is doing – seeking out the places and people beyond our own little bubble, visiting them, talking to them and trying to understand them, rather than relying on secondhand accounts and false boundaries of distance, demographics and geography.

– Natalie Bradbury

Windows within Windows

John Berger – Landscapes (Verso)

On an ordinary page, right in the middle of this collection, John Berger states that ‘stupid people often accuse Marxists of welcoming the intrusion of politics into art.’

It is one of those wake-up moments John Berger is so good at providing. He goes on to explain that these intrusions are painful and often have great suffering at their roots. Even Marxists do not welcome these into their contemplations. As a counterpoint, he then describes Picasso, staying at the Savoy in London, as a successful enfant terrible, no longer seeing the poor at café tables.

What Berger has done, persistently, from every angle, all his long life, is explore how our windows on the world are constructed. He questions what they engage with, edit out and why.

If we look at ‘English landscapes’ from the late 18th century, they are made through the lenses of Italy, and the grand tour. The misty blue beyonds are coming out of an appreciation of the Italian renaissance as the ‘pinnacle’ of perfect art, and also out of the artist visiting Italy.

They are historical constructs. This is how ‘Landscapes’ makes sense here. This is not a BBC4 scan of lush English Pastoralism to tasteful music.

Renaissance perspectivalism was seen, in the west, in British art traditions all the way up to the early twentieth century, as ‘more real’, ‘more natural’, more correct in the ways in which they represented the world. The example often given in art schools is Piero della Francesca’s View of an Ideal City (1470) which uses technologies of perspective to illustrate the ‘ideal form’ of utopian city spaces.

But perspectivalism was exactly that, a technology. These pictures contain the idea that their way of representing the world was becoming ‘more correct’, that western art gets better and better, more realistic, as history goes on, an idea that the era was steeped in, partly through the philosophy of Hegel.

Yet if we look at non-western art, we get a very different range of ways of representing the world. We also get very different ways of seeing through the ‘isms’ that shattered those simplistic ‘windows on the world’ in the twentieth century.

Within the western representational tradition, one of the few places we can find a very different take on visual representation is in the art of children. The idea of the child as something untutored lies here, of the ‘primitive’ as something to be ironed out of creativity.

These debates sit on bigger questions of nature versus nurture, of Rousseau and Locke. But when we look at an example such as Alfred Wallis, we can see how this intuitive, ‘untrained’ sense of visual representation isn’t exclusively produced by infants at all.

Wallis began painting in his 70s after his wife died, and was considered eccentric until discovered by Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the early twentieth century, when modern artists were beginning to think all over again about the idea of the ‘primitive’ and the ‘sophisticated’ in art.

Similarly, what Berger does is to explore everyday life at the other side of his window on the world. He goes to the marginal edge zones figures such as Wallis came from, again and again, as much as he goes to national galleries to interrogate dubious masterpieces.

Rather than look at what is assembled ‘out there’ as a landowner might, looking at what he owns to then have it painted in oil, Berger travels to engage it in dialogue. So here we get lettuce, radish and horseradishes on market stalls in Krakow, next to discussions of Joyce’s Ulysses, now utterly levelled in its importance, back to the everyday it emerged out of.

For Adorno, a revolutionary painting teaches you how to read its new dialect at the same time as it utterly shatters the linearity of previous conventions, as did Ulysses, but with Berger we never lose sight of the everyday life such new forms came from.

Abstraction and other ways of seeing come out of the real. Artists abstract from that real, for various reasons. They are not trying to break into the real from the abstract, even if they try, even if this is what they think they are doing.

Berger might, then, add another thing that people often do, which is to declare avant garde art elitist and impenetrable.

But Picasso intentionally brought African forms into cubist perspectivalism, for instance, in his controversial Demoiselles d’Avignon. Both Cubism and the interest in non-western art were calculated to shatter the assumptions of a ‘natural’ form of representation, or a ‘correct’ form in perspectivalism.

The interest in so-called ‘outsider art’, arriving out of these sorts of discoveries, also examines – and murkily collects and sells – the art of asylum inmates. This can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet’s ‘Art Brut’ or ‘raw art’ and early twentieth century modernists and their interest in the art of the ‘primitive’, or untrained, or children.

But we need to question the politics implicit in terms such as ‘outsider’. For what are these artists and these ways of representing the work actually outside of?

It has been suggested, by writers such as Martin Jay among others, that the renaissance perspectival form is just one ‘regime of modernity’. It is just one way of representing the world, a product of just one culture, which, because of the violence of imperialism, saw itself ‘at the centre’ of ‘civilisation’ and the ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ to be in the ‘peripheral’ colonies they were subjugating and exploiting.

This is then mapped onto practitioners such as Alfred Wallis even in western territories, and onto asylum inmates. This is why Marxists do not welcome politics into their contemplation. Because the messages those intrusions bring are heavy.

In excerpts from his trilogy here, that begins with his novel Pig Earth, Berger sides with the ‘so-called backwards’, as he does so eloquently in his collaboration with Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man.

Berger is not just ‘for the outsider’, in some ways – although we have to be careful with this – he has lived with them and as one of them. We can ask questions about whether or not Wallis’s vision of the world is more correct than that of Francesca. Is it right to call Wallis ‘child-like’, ‘eccentric’, or ‘primitive’?

Such terms are at least implicitly imperialistic, we must stare those facts fully in the face and they are big intrusions.

Berger gives us different stories of both artists and peasants moving from place to place, via his own peripatetic life. He shows us, in short, the windows through windows through windows that writing about art inevitably involves.

Like Sigmar Polke, who treated his canvases with resin so you could see the frame behind, Berger does not try to convince us that he is providing a clear view through clean glass onto an objective reality. But oddly, via doing that he always gives us a richer, more authentic and real take on that reality.

Also like Polke, once he has disabused us of the notion of a straightforward ‘window on the world’, Berger overlays the resulting deflated space with poetry. Tom Overton’s editing has an important part to play here, as with the previous volume Portraits, he puts Berger’s artificially separated projects of fiction, criticism, biography and politics back into the single powerful river it always came from.

These collections are only just beginning to resurrect Berger from the default image of him smoking on television in big shirt collars. These are the landscapes of Berger’s life as he reaches its end, and they are nothing short of a journey through the whole of twentieth century Europe.