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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘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

Disappointment

Johann Hari – Lost Connections (Bloomsbury, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Blair James 

The Story Ritual

Zoe Gilbert – Folk (Bloomsbury, 2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Joe Darlington

Until shame came to drive a wedge between us

Édouard Louis – The End of Eddy (Vintage, 2018)

There is a lot gained from a strong opening line, and Édouard Louis certainly gave me what I look for in The End of Eddy (2014): “From my childhood I have no happy memories.” Sometimes enduring pain can only be expressed simply, and the book continues in this curt style. Louis deals with brutality casually and without indulgence, offering many of these concise sentiments: “You never get used to insults.” The book is full of calm observations of his crippling childhood fears and punishable treatment. I would in fact go as far as to call Eddy a masterpiece of observation, written with dignity and control, anti-hysterical, a hard past laid out neatly and assuredly. It is a telling of shame unburdened by self-pity or flowery prose. His presentation of memory, its wanderings and coming-back-agains, is beautiful and veracious in its simplicity. The book is thoughtfully punctuated in an extremely literal sense of the word; Louis writes with a cognitive pace.

Louis’ reflections on the pressure he felt growing up are pertinent to our culture’s current dialogue on masculinity, and it seems that this has played a large part in Eddy’s critical acclaim. It is indeed a brutal unveiling of “masculinity” and its misconceptions, a contemplation of what it means to be a man often disgusted in its musings but never obtusely so. The italicised and often rambling dialogue of his family and surrounding persons is drastically opposed in nature to his own controlled, concise and elegant prose – theirs so desperate and exaggerated, and so often delivering perverse statements of “manliness”.

We are presented with an articulation of the threat perceived in difference – the working class fear of the unknown. Louis communicates the idea that we are complicit in our own mistreatment, or, at least, that low status seems to be accompanied by this complicity. The book portrays the isolation of poverty – both forced and chosen, and the distancing of the working class both suffered and perpetuated. The characters that surround Eddy are complicit in the perpetuation of their own poverty in all senses: financial, moral and sentimental. Louis writes “There is a will that exists, a desperate, continual, constantly renewed effort to place some people on a level below you, not to be on the lowest rung of the social ladder” and captures a kind of communal distance – the seemingly inescapable fate of the working class. However despite this overwhelming representation of isolation, this beautiful portrait of himself is actually built up through his detailed meditations on those around him. Louis highlights our condition as a social species, that we must tell the stories of others in order to tell your own, making the distancing all the more apparent and cruel. Thoughtfulness in the very absence of thought.

The main disappointment that I have felt with regards to Eddy is Louis’ refusal to claim it as his own story. If I wanted to be facile, I could say that this generic fear stems from the fear instilled within Louis as a child. Genre shame caused by the unadulterated fear told in the book. There is very little more shameful than being forced to lap up freshly spat gobs of someone else’s phlegm from your sleeve. I believe that this book would be more courageously, appropriately and importantly named as non-fiction. Are we still living in the shadow of the James Frey scandal? Are you happy Oprah?

Louis writes “here I am simply trying to imagine, to reconstitute what must have been my cousin’s state of mind at that moment”, evoking the autobiographical contract. But why include comments such as this to then brand the work a novel? It is important for this book to be read in terms of our dire need to readdress our understanding of genre. It makes no sense to offer these excusatory comments in fiction – as we currently define it. Do we still feel that the novel is the only respectable form? Are memoirs an embarrassing relic of the past?

Literary journalism in the modern climate seems to trump subject matter over writing style and achievement, however Louis does deserve commendation – if not to the dramatic extent it has been awarded – for his prose. It is also surprising that most reviewers of this book have gone away in wonder at Louis’ success in spite of his desperate beginnings; experience shows us that it is from the depths that most heroes rise. Adversity surely brings us strength. The question is not one of whether we can rise, but of how well we can rise from our falls. Louis has put his troubles to good use.

Overall, here is a refreshing voice and an invigorating handling of suffering, evocative without laud or gaud, but it is disappointing that this courage couldn’t traverse in generic terms.

– Blair James

Shades of grey

Lynda Nead – The Tiger in the Smoke: Art and Culture in Post-War Britain (Yale, 2017)

Lynda Nead’s new history of art and culture in post-war Britain borrows its title from a novel by crime fiction writer Margery Allingham. Whilst Allingham’s ‘tiger’ was a vicious killer who lurked in the grimy shadows of post-war London, it’s the smoke that is the important word here; Nead frames her study within the fog of 1950s Britain, beginning with the ‘Great Smog’ that hung over London for five days towards the end of 1952, the year The Tiger in the Smoke was published.

It’s significant, too, that Nead borrows from the mass cultural form of the detective novel to set the tone of the book, which emphasises the ordinariness and continuity of experience that characterised much of life in post-war Britain. Nead’s early focus on the atmospheric qualities of smog begins a search for the other collective social and cultural events that set the tone for the period. Although the Festival of Britain of 1951 features as a national focal point and a spectacular showcase of modernity, most of the details she highlights are far more everyday, from the illustrated black and white Picture Post articles that captured life in the streets of derelict and war-ravaged Britain, to the tedium of Sunday afternoons, to family life that was increasingly brought together around the TV set, to the dressing gowns worn by bored housewives up and down the country, to the domestic details captured by the ‘Kitchen Sink Painters’. These humdrum reference points are used as entry points into bigger narratives, from gender and race to national identity.

Underpinning this exploration of post-war culture is the work of cultural theorist Raymond Williams. Nead convincingly draws upon the term ‘structures of feeling’, which Williams used to characterise the intangible shifts in culture, meaning and atmosphere that subtly occur from one generation to the next. Although she focuses on the years between 1945 and 1960, ultimately Nead exposes the impossibility of identifying a neatly delineated time period in this way; as she points out, the new developments of post-war Britain, such as the welfare state and physical reconstruction, existed alongside residual aspects of culture dating not just from the war – rationing, she reminds us, continued until 1954, and towns and cities continued to be haunted by empty bombsites many years the war had ended – but from the Victorian period, both in the country’s crumbling built environment and in lingering social attitudes and artistic influences. The overall picture painted by Nead is far from the colour and experimentation of the swinging sixties; instead, she suggests that for most of the population British life existed in various shades of grey.

The fact that there’s been considerable interest in the post-war period in recent years, from Owen Hatherley’s writing on nostalgia, to the inception of Manchester’s own Modernist magazine, to the restaging of the Independent Group’s famous exhibition Parallel of Art and Life at the ICA in 2013, hardly needs restating. What Nead adds to this return to the post-war era is a rare talent for combining in-depth research and academic analysis with a style of writing that’s interesting and pleasurable for the general reader.

She also ventures beyond the standard texts of the period to offer up reading – and viewing – lists of less-known books and films from the era, providing a starting point for further explorations into the culture of Britain at a time when the country was simultaneously in thrall to its past, absorbing increasingly international influences, and exploring new ideas of what it might become.

– Natalie Bradbury

Dadsong

Tim Atkins – On Fathers < On Daughtyrs (Boiler House Press, 2017)

There’s no shortage of fathers in poetry; men in black with Meinkampf looks, fucking you up, maybe even, if you’re lucky, working a horse-plough with shoulders globed. But where are the father-poets?

Tim Atkins’ latest book, On Fathers < On Daughtyrs, offers us a glimpse into the father-poet world. It’s a hurried one. A stream of images, funny and tiring, build in one direction only to veer off in another. In a pacey 120 pages Atkins immerses us in a flow of dad consciousness.

“This is my song of Thing 1 and Thing 2” he writes. His daughters, naughty and curious, puncture the text with their own Dadaesque voices – “Daddy, do planes go to the toilet?” – while our narrator scrambles through a landscape of everyday responsibility, barely keeping up, his “wrists covered with monster munch dust”.

The poetry is fragmented, experimental. It offers brief glimpses and flashes of recognizable scenes before snatching them away. It can be frustrating at times, but the results are memorable. As soon as I reached the final page I began to turn the pages back, picking through the scenery in reverse. It reads almost as effectively.

By fracturing the panorama of dad-places, Atkins welcomes us too into the flux of dad-time. To be a father of daughters is to be always looking ahead. How should I raise them? Where will they end up? And with this come the social questions. What world that they will inherit? Protest is a recurring image in the text: “protesting – inside or outside the fence”, “slogans on cardboard signs”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”, “on the picket line again”…

…but then, of a sudden, our dream of the future is punctured by a “green banana hurled at the wall”. We’re back in the mucky present, with “snot [on] the ceiling”. These most momentary of moments (“amazed in the middle of cows” is my favourite line) challenge us to think of remembering even as we are alive in the present. Perhaps these moments will stay with us forever? Perhaps we’d only like them too.

On Fathers < On Daughtyrs is not so much a poem as a reading experience. I, for one, would struggle to locate a structure in it. But as a form to express fatherhood, Atkins has created something evocative, provoking, and at times deeply poignant. The book won’t reveal everything on your first time navigating it. It’s a good read while commuting, but you might enjoy it more on the return journey.

An exciting and challenging work on an underexplored theme. May it father many more like it.

– Joe Darlington

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.

– Steve Hanson

Footprints in the Snow

Han Kang – The White Book (Portobello Books, 2017)

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Nonsense! Books are physical objects. Things to be experienced. That a writer should leave a book’s design to chance, or worse, a half-conscious set of inherited expectations, strikes me as carelessness.

That isn’t to say that every writer should be considering presentation from the moment of conception, but when a book comes along to which this level of thought has been put, one can’t help but take a moment to appreciate it.

Han Kang’s The White Book is the novel to which I’m alluding. It is a novel about a woman reflecting on life’s poignant moments and its presentation – stark white with short paragraphs like footprints through snow – invites a mood of reflection before one has even read the first page. We are addressed by the narrator, who begins her story by listing white things: ‘swaddling bands, newborn gown, salt, snow, ice…’.

We find she has moved from Korea to a ‘town with white walls’ in the Mediterranean. From here she imagines her mother who, lost in a snowstorm deep in their rural homeland, gave birth to a stillborn child.

Her mother told her the baby was as white as a ricecake. From here the colour white enters, and then recurs, recurs, recurs, at times clever, at times surprising, at times heartbreaking, until the close of the book. As the book moves forward in short, self-contained sections it is tempting to compare it to poetry. The use of the poetic moment, deep but without obvious metaphor, is most closely associated with haiku (particularly Basho).

But this is nevertheless a rigidly structured novel. Each step forward in the narrative is subtly announced beforehand, a catalogue of white imagery interlaces disparate sections, tying together moments across time. The recurrence itself is accounted for, becoming a metaphor for memories whose emotion fades more with each remembering. The translation by Deborah Smith is itself a thing of subtle beauty.

Some Korean words appear, couched naturally in context, as do some translated phrases – ‘laughing whitely’, for example – which draw attention to themselves as curiosities of language to be commented on. The unjustified text and short sentences complement the sense of the writing as a fragile thing. Small marks stamped black on a white page, the whiteness threatening to swallow it all up.

White is not a colour, it is an absence of colour, and The White Book is made, in a similar paradox, of words defined by their silences. The sparing black on the tundra of white pages, the scattering of moments which rely on white images to connect them together; all of it seems to suggest our continued desire for language to communicate in the face of its impossibility.

The use of traditional imagery reinforces this; snow, the sea, birdsong, all carefully deployed to invoke the poetic while avoiding cliché. Trying to say something about the unsayable, again.

We are wandering on, leaving footprints in snow, as more and more snow seems to fall. It’s difficult to review a book like this other than to admire its power and the wholeness of its vision.

The White Book represents a significant achievement in the area of book-as-experience. Everyone who picks up this book will get something out of it, but people who read a lot of novels will, I think, adore it. There is nothing careless about this book. It commands the whole attention. It is a book which realises that reading too is an art form.

– Joe Darlington