The Bloch Series #2: Johan Siebers on Bloch, Hope and Utopia

Bloch und Dutschke

Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain. Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.

Nyx: Recently you made the claim that critical theory had fundamentally missed the utopian moment. I thought I’d begin by asking why you think this happened – what was it about the Frankfurt School’s manner of thinking that made it miss the utopian?

JS: There is a curious sameness in the three stages of the Frankfurt School – Horkheimer/Adorno; Habermas; Honneth – namely that the three moments of critique of functionalised reason that we find in them all arise from what is perceived as an unavailability of the utopian. It is the unavailability that does the work. So we get the early formulation of the very idea of a critical theory as a move necessitated and made possible by the nearly total instrumentalisation of reason after the Enlightenment. This means that the sphere of intrinsic values or orientations in reason has become unavailable, everything becomes means-end calculation, administration. Remember how Horkheimer formulates his early conceptualisations of critical theory in an explicit contrast against what he calls “metaphysics”. In Adorno we then see this point brought to its dead-end conclusion in the idea of a negative dialectic, the idea that the logic of the system leaves only the place of no consequence open for refuge, which is ever evanescent, not part of any further relationality because relationality has become synonymous with alienation, with ‘system’. There is a solipsistic moment in the negative dialectic. In the famous and indeed still very moving final aphorism of Minima Moralia Adorno speaks about the utopian as the unavailable light from which we have to look at the world if our knowledge is to be something else than control and domination, but it is the – negative – realisation of the impossibility of doing this that becomes its last refuge; a, for Adorno typical, pirouette takes the place of reflexivity. And this pirouette-like movement is typical of the thinking man’s unavailability of the utopian, we see it everywhere – “my hands are tied, but watch me spin”. Critical theory becomes what Benjamin long before said it was, dialectic at a standstill. Habermas, in his pragmatic reformulation of reason, has a different choreography but one that is just as much given in by the unavailability of the utopian. Finally Honneth, in his return to a phenomenological, hence idealising, analysis of affectivity as lying at the basis of recognition, moves as it were in the other direction, back to a kind of naturalism that was also always dormant in critical theory, and we can say that in this stage the unavailability of the utopian is localised in the psychoanalytic unconscious and the hopes, tragedies and disappointments of early family dynamics. It is interesting from this perspective that Honneth thinks it is possible to use critical theory to define a notion of a social pathology of institutions, here we see something of a totalitarian horizon of democracy opening up, the birth of a new type of ‘common sense’, about which Hegel said such wonderful things.

Well, is it then not a permanent characteristic of the utopian to be unavailable, or to be perhaps the place of unavailability itself, something we should not forget about or try to colonise, but instead come to see as an almost sacred space? Is it not the fact that the utopian has become ‘available’ that created the problems critical theory sought to conceptualise and address? In other words, is not Juliette a story of the availability of the utopian – to the very end? Is not this movement of permanent withdrawal the only resource we have left to rescue the utopian in a totally administered world?

And here I say: “no”. The utopian is indeed unavailable in a specific way, and it is the beginning of wisdom to come to see this. But to then say, as critical theory did, that unavailability is the only form of the utopian that we can think or work with, is to make yourself captive to the dialectic you are trying to diagnose and free yourself from. You are left without any possibility to motivate either yourself or anyone else and by cultivating an attitude of aversion to the idea that the utopian might be there in a more positive way, the programmatic, destructive face of totalitarian thinking continues to persecute you. We have to think in an altogether more creative way. It is in fact creativity, or spontaneity, that is not recognised for what it is if we miss the utopian moment. And this notion of spontaneity is not possible without a notion of engagement, commitment, a recognition of a real freedom that I have in relation to the world and my own life. When the withdrawal of the utopian presents itself as the only way, it masks the fact that it is itself already a response – and this is where the problem with critical theory lies. I remind you of the importance Adorno attached to natural spontaneity. In the places where he writes about that, for example the discussion of Schiller in the Jargon of Authenticity, you see the limits of critical theory most clearly. He was aware of it, dim, through a glass, darkly, which we can see for example also in his lifelong interest in Kierkegaard, whom he treats, unsurprisingly from what I have just said, in a reductive manner to allow himself to break away from what you might call Hegel’s positive dialectic. But he fails to understand the importance of the leap of faith.

So the question becomes: what then does it mean to not miss the utopian moment? Here we have to ask ourselves what it is we are responding to. Bloch formulates this in a helpful way with his concept of the “inconstructable question”. Here we have a radical openness at the heart of existence, a question we ask of the world and that the world asks of us, but that cannot be formulated in the direction of any specific answer. There are, in other words, questions that cannot be answered – not just like that anyway – without distorting them into something they are not. Perhaps there is only one such question. It is the question that inspires a life, and here we touch upon the nature of desire. Without thinking about desire we are sure to miss the utopian moment.

Nyx: There is a poem by Paul Celan:

Fadensonnen
über der grauschwarzen Ödnis.
Ein Baum –
hoher Gedanke
greift sich den Lichtton: es sind
noch Lieder zu singen jenseits
der Menschen.

[Threadsuns
over the grayblack wasteness.
A tree –
high thought strikes the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
humankind.]

Is Bloch’s philosophy not being spoken here by Celan? I wonder if by way of this poem we could focus on the Blochian ‘not-yet’ and its relation to hope?

JS: This is indeed a wonderful poem and an image of the dialectic of life and death. Celan has another line that is very close to the heart of Bloch’s philosophy: “Wirklichkeit ist nicht, Wirklichkeit will gesucht und gewonnen sein”. “Reality is not, reality wants to be looked for and won”. Nothing is yet what it is, nothing is done with itself or with anything else. There are songs to sing on the other side of what we are and have become. These ideas are fundamental to Bloch’s philosophy. The “song that was not sung at our cradle”, but which we can sing in that going-together of making and finding that we see in all art, something, I would say, many philosophies have missed. Making and finding are not mutually exclusive, quite the contrary. Without the attempt to make something new you will never find anything – and finding is something which has to do with the unexpected. Bloch likes to quote Heraclitus’ remark “if you do not expect the unexpected, you will not find it”. A very dialectical thought! It is this attitude of paradox, making and finding, doing and receiving, that we need to understand the utopian, to understand hope. Hope is always a hope against hope, a hope for the sake of the hopeless – but that makes it real and meaningful – and keeps it in check against its own degeneration. This degeneration is not something we can be immune to without losing hope. The dialectic encompasses the thinker herself as well. Thinking with hope means to realise there are no guarantees – also not the guarantee of the safe haven of dogmatic scepticism. Bloch speaks of ‘docta spes’, educated hope, to indicate the existential purport of the ontology of the not-yet. Hope needs to be educated, critiqued, understood. But this phrase ‘docta spes’ is formed on the model of Nicolas of Cusa’s ‘docta ignorantia’, learned ignorance. Cusa says that learned ignorance is different from initial ignorance. First, it is aware of itself as ignorance – the classical point of Socrates, whose wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he did not know. So, a knowledge about ignorance. But then there is the further point of a returning ignorance about ignorance: we do not know if this ignorance might not one day be lifted. Now this is a fundamental point. How much recent philosophy has not, by proclaiming universal scepticism, showed itself from a very dogmatic angle indeed? It is difficult to stand the full extent of ignorance. Yet this is what philosophy must do if it is to be anything at all.

We encounter here what it means, I should like to say at an existential level, to hope. It does not mean to harbour a fantasy of what would be nice to have or good to have, a phantasmagoria of redemption. Hope is much slighter than that, it is hardly more than this attitude of not being done with anything. But that slight thing, almost nothing, gratuitous, ever vulnerable, like threadsuns on a tree in autumn, becomes the precondition for any other practical, cognitive, emotional, physical and also political engagement with others and with the world.

So singing a song beyond humankind, this is the human thing to do. And for Bloch it is not just human. Nature, reality itself, is singing in this vein as well. I think it is interesting to see that, with some necessary modification to address a tendency to objectify the contours of transcendence, we are dealing here with very classical, platonic, patterns of thought. The destabilising work of desire, and indeed of singing, in Plato is clear for anyone to see. Just think of the myth of the cicadas in the Phaedrus. Moreover, and this comes out beautifully in Celan’s poem as well, the philosophical process by which we come to see the world as not-yet, is one of going back to what is free in the human sphere – to what Plato would have called the soul, or Kierkegaard existence. We need to discover this unfinished business, this radical freedom, in ourselves before we can see the world in its light. Is this also not the fundamental meaning of Descartes’ cogito, which is so often misunderstood as bifurcating the world in body and mind? In Descartes’ philosophy the world as an object of science only becomes available through the radical return to subjective freedom, “not of this world” – truly a song beyond humankind and our best tune yet. The world as a field of work, of a making-finding engagement, opens up once freedom is understood. To the extent that freedom is misunderstood, the world becomes more and more a simple resource of exploitation. Freedom without hope, we might say, that is the real issue we are dealing with today: but it is not a Cartesian legacy. So here we have a line that runs through the history of philosophy, and which has to do with the nature of hope, from Heraclitus to Plato to Descartes to Bloch. This line has been misunderstood by many philosophers.

Bloch, who was much more of a natural-born Aristotelian, like Hegel, would perhaps not like this genealogy of hope in the slow birth of the idea of radical subjective freedom. But I think it is there, and I think seeing it lends force to your suggestion that Celan and Bloch are talking about similar things.

Nyx: Bloch is never prey to the brutality of an established fact, but I wonder if a potential criticism arises concerning the way he mediates the future impetus of hope, on the one hand, with facts and our embroilment in the now on the other. Is there a danger that Bloch propagates what Hegel calls an ‘unhappy consciousness’: the now can only be redeemed if it is completely subordinated to a wholly other world beyond it, with the result that, as Marx scathingly said of his socialist utopian contemporaries, we passively glorify the future? How would you counter the claim that Bloch’s thought is that of an unhappy consciousness, completely encumbered by a world beyond the now, so much so that it becomes the contrary of revolutionary action, practical-critical activity?

JS: Passively glorifying the future is the exact opposite of what Bloch calls ‘concrete utopia’. It is the “Verfallsform”, the perverted or decadent form of hope, of a hope that has been beaten, threatened into anxiety, rendered impotent – and we see it all around us, it is what keeps a large part of our economies running. The familiar educator’s stance, to conflate daydreaming with the passive glorification of the future, has yet proven to be the most effective way of cheating people out of their life- and world-transforming hopes. Isn’t our educational system largely meant to achieve this with near completion by the age of 18? Isn’t the incessant chatter about ‘the future’ and how we ‘prepare for it’, that we hear in politics, business, the tabloids of the intellectuals, the same tactic to ensure the status quo? All of this has nothing to do with the openness to the future, the concrete engagement with the forward-looking potential, that Bloch is talking about and without which there would be no life. To conflate the two is, again, a very old pattern of thought. Like the link between religion and authoritarian power, this conflation, we might say between metaphysics and static thinking, is, I think, a central feature of the function of ideology in human societies. But throwing away the baby with the bathwater is a repetition of that same conflation: it is an instance of what I mentioned earlier, you remain being persecuted by the evil you simply avert yourself from. Here wielding the scalpel of careful thought might seem at first to be dealing with hair-splitting distinctions, but I think it is absolutely necessary if we are to understand our situation that we do distinguish carefully here. Our daydreams have a hugely important role to play in developing a sense of self, in developing an understanding of possibility and alternative and then also in transformative action. The free use of imagination is a prerequisite for any form of reason that is not simply instrumental. Bloch indeed loves to quote Hegel’s “all the worse for the facts”. But this does not mean to disregard the brutality of fact. It means to actively oppose it, especially the brutality.

There is a deeper question here as well: Quite apart from questions of a reified unhappy consciousness, if we are always with the “then and there”, do we not fail to live in the “here and now” (to use a distinction made by José Muños in a recent book on Bloch and queer theory)? We can begin by saying that, at least for Bloch, the “then and there” exists nowhere else than – “here and now”. But that still leaves open the possibility that we fail to recognise something about the “here and now” if we focus only on the “there and then” in it. And this is certainly a danger, one that lies completely within the philosophy of hope. It is as it were its Achilles’ heel, but without which it would not be what it is. Confronting this danger gives us an opportunity to understand better what the “now” is and to break the illusion of thinking we are anywhere else. I think that here we have to take Bloch’s remarks about the inconstructability, the speechlessness, of subjectivity seriously. He also speaks of a “darkness of the lived moment”. Subjectivity, the lived now, is not the sphere of clear contents and meaning, it is a speechless desirous lack, the horizon of the world, something that cannot be named directly – the sphere where we can all say with Odysseus “I am no one”. Sharing this space is what community comes down to, and occupying this space is what living in the now means. I think that here Bloch, Plotinian mysticism and Zen Buddhism actually see eye to eye on most points. Perhaps some of the problems that the Left has encountered since Marx made his remarks about the utopian socialist has something to do with failing to see that utopian thought is incomplete without this awareness of the ineffability of living in the now. The “ethics” of living in the inconstructable question is one of hope, the new, the unexpected – of living life as experiment and improvisation, the now in its movement of going beyond itself, a transcending, but without transcendence. I want to stress this improvisational core in Bloch’s philosophy, which comes out clearly in his style, and which makes his prose sound more like Bebop than like Beethoven, despite himself. That is where the reconciliation of then and there with here and now lies.

Nyx: And finally: “There is hope,” Franz Kafka once said, “but not for us.” (Or, “Es ist möglich jetzt aber nicht.”) I’m intrigued as to how, in light of Ernst Bloch, we could read this adage penned by the self-proclaimed prisoner of Praha?

JS: Well, we can read this enigmatic statement in many ways and it teaches us a lot about hope. The first thing to note is the irony in it. What is a hope that is not for us? This is a monstrosity and a sadistic thing. There is food, but not for you. For you, there is no hope. Is there a more fundamental way of saying “there is no place for you”? The irony points to the injustice of such a situation. Rather than trying to argue for, or justify, a universal hope and justice, Kafka puts us in touch with this ineradicable idea by triggering the involuntary response in the reader, of lament, or anger, or resignation, or knowing and affirming complicity. This simple statement throws us back onto ourselves and leaves the question entirely in our hands: how do you, reader, relate to hope? Hope is not something we get and which looks after us. We’ll have to make it ourselves, otherwise we will never find it. So that is the first thing and as will be clear a very Blochian idea.

Secondly, the remark confronts us with the uncanny facticity of hope. There is hope. As if hope was not an intentional state, entertained by a subject (“I hope that x”), but something out there, in the world, harboured by no one, vagrant, everywhere and nowhere, Eros sleeping outside on the pavement, a name of being itself: “There is” – “what is?” “Hope.” This is a brutal facticity of quite a different nature than the positivist fetishism of fact we know so well. It is the facticity of the vulnerable. Hope is – and again we are referred back to ourselves; what do we do with it? The fact of hope is never safe, but being is hope. If hope was not in being, where could we ever find it? So we have now two moments, the two Blochian moments of making and finding. And note that the ironic tone of “there is hope” is precisely only possible when indeed there is hope.

But, thirdly, this hope is not for us. If there is hope, but we are hopeless cases, and this is an injustice, then something has to give. We need a song beyond humankind. And so we have to see that things are hopeless before we can become determined to make them otherwise and prove the irony and the lament of the statement wrong, in the moment of affirming it.
Kafka’s statement is so popular because it is a moralistic statement. It addresses the fundamental dynamic of having to lose yourself and all you imagined to hold anxiously dear, before you can find yourself in a bigger way, if at all, and it emphasises the role of human agency in this dynamic. It summons you to take your life upon yourself, and it intimates the hell of not doing that, which is not a hell of extinction as torture, as in the hopeless place of the Penal Colony, but the hell of extinction as bland nothingness, the hell of living an other life for others, which is also where this remark acquires its function as a cultural diagnosis of aspects of modernity that were so much at the forefront of Kafka’s mind in Prague in the early 20th century, and which gives it its prophetic ring. Bloch is not such a moralist about hope, but the ideas are the same. In Bloch the language is often more spatio-temporal. He talks a lot about hope as home, “Heimat”, and here we have the same dynamic: our home is a place where we have never been. That implies a critique and a work of mourning; it is only through this experience of losing something you never had that home, and hope, come into being. This is the meaning of “not-yet”.

Johan Siebers teaches Religious Studies at Middlesex University and is a research fellow in the history of German philosophy at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He writes about German philosophy, utopian thought, Ernst Bloch, metaphysics, literature and critical theory. His most recent publications include “Ernst Bloch’s Dialectical Anthropology”, in Žižek & Thompson (eds.), The Privatization of Hope (Duke University Press, 2013) and “The Utopian Function of Film Music”, in Mazierska & Kristensen (eds.), Marx at the Movies (Palgrave, 2014).

The Bloch Series #1: Peter Thompson on Bloch, Marxism and Religion

bloch

Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain – Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.

 

Nyx: Ernst Bloch stands firmly in the Marxist tradition and was named the philosopher of the October Revolution. I’d like to begin by asking you why the Bolshevik event was ascribed to Bloch in this particular manner; what does this tell us about Bloch’s philosophy?

PT: When you say that he stands firmly in the Marxist tradition then I have to ask what you mean by the “Marxist tradition”. What he did once say was that – and I think this was a sort of nod to Marx’s own position on whether he was a Marxist or not — he didn’t know what he was but he did know that he wasn’t a non-Marxist. His attitude to being a Marxist was of a piece with his attitude to Marxism itself in that he was very firmly of the opinion that it should be just one theoretical approach alongside lots of others. He did, of course, give it primacy alongside those other theoretical and philosophical approaches but when you read Ernst Bloch you can see he is very clearly also laced with Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Spinoza and Hegel – of course, above all Hegel. He goes back to Aristotle and Avicenna and also stretches forward to look at what we mean when we talk about a socialist/communist future and how it will emerge from present circumstances interacting with future possibilities. Too much of the “Marxist tradition” was, for him, a closed and hermetically sealed system and he was in favour of “open system” Marxism. I think there is much to be learned from him in this regard.

As far as being the philosopher of the October Revolution, as Oskar Negt called him, then this too is less than straightforward. For thinkers of that generation, the October Revolution came along as a shining beacon at the end of the First World War and many threw themselves into supporting it while it was still fresh. If one thinks of the Arab Spring today and the waves of perhaps unrealistic optimism that it unleashed in many of us, then you get some sense of the mood of the period in addition, of course, this event — in Badiou’s sense — was led by an explicitly Marxist revolutionary party. It is questionable that at the time, however, Bloch was even a Marxist. He was still heavily influenced by both eschatological religious thought and, paradoxically, a sort of Nietzschean vitalism. If you read the first edition of Spirit of Utopia from 1918, that comes across very strongly. I think it is important to remember that the First World War had a sort of apocalyptic feeling to it for many intellectuals and for Bloch, the end of that war seemed like the beginning of something very new.

What we ended up with of course is what Tony Kaes has called a “shellshocked society”, especially Germany, where the failure of the revolution in Russia to spark over into central and western Europe led to the disaster which was fascism. At the same time the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution also meant that it descended into bureaucratic Stalinism in which the defence of the Soviet Union became the only international duty of the Communist movement. This subordination of hope and openness towards the possibilities of revolution in the future to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy went against everything that Bloch stood for. However, he also maintained a belief, until well into the 1950s that the Soviet Union needed to be defended, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t. We also have to remember that as a Jewish, Marxist, Communist intellectual in Germany in the 1930s he was forced to take sides in a way that is difficult to comprehend today. The question for critical Marxists back then was “how do I support the Soviet Union without supporting Stalinism?”

There is also a historical dimension to this in that Bloch did not want to be like those supporters of the French Revolution of the 18th-century who ran away as soon as the blood started to flow and, more importantly, when the establishment of the Bonapartist state replaced the revolutionary fervour of the initial period, and who then threw their hands up in horror. It was Hegel who maintained his support for the revolution even after it had descended into Bonapartism and he welcomed Napoleon as “the World Spirit on horseback”. Bloch did not go as far as that but there was a certain degree of congruence there. “Freedom comes on the tracks of a T-34” would be the 20th Century equivalent. After his years of exile in the United States — not in the Soviet Union you notice – he returned to Germany and took up the post of Professor of Philosophy in the GDR in Leipzig. Again, like many other leftist intellectuals of the time, he thought that the new GDR would be the better of the two states and that socialism might be realised on German soil for the first time. Of course, he soon fell out of favour with the Party as the state became more and more subordinated to the interests of what was now an entirely bureaucratized regime in Moscow.

Bloch’s Open System was diametrically opposed to Stalinisation and he soon became the leading philosophical figurehead behind a democratic communist movement in East Germany. So, to come back to the original question, Bloch is not so much the philosopher of the October Revolution as he is the philosopher of what the October Revolution might have become. Again this fits in philosophically with his general approach which sees history not simply as a series of events but as something which carries within it all sorts of lost opportunities, traces of unrealised potential and sparks and dreams of future possibilities. This is why he talks of the “ontology of not yet being” as the central philosophical expression of our time. In other words, the process of the fermentation of world history will throw up all sorts of strange constructs that have to prove themselves in the world and we have to try to come to terms with them within what he calls the “darkness of the lived moment”. As we experience today, it is not always easy to get it right.

Nyx: In volume one of The Principle of Hope Bloch discusses what he conceptualises as the cold and warm streams in Marxism. What does each stream indicate for Bloch, and how are they related?

PT: Of course this relates back to the previous question. For Bloch, cold stream Marxism was the way in which revolutionary and workers’ parties were forced to deal with “that which is possible” – Aristotle’s Kata to dynaton – whereas warm stream Marxism relates to “that which might become possible” — Aristotle’s Dynamei on. For example, in Heritage of our Times from 1934 he recognises that the Communist Party was partly responsible for the rise of fascism because it concentrated on cold stream questions and did not offer any sort of warm stream possibilities. You will find very little socio-economic analysis in his work because he took Marxist economic theory as a given. What he was more interested in was the way in which we understand both the utopian moments we constantly experience as well as our dreams for the future. The cold stream merely provided the solid ground in which our dreams could take root and flourish. Of course, this inability or unwillingness to deal with socio-economic questions is, for me, one of the greatest weaknesses in his work and I think a far greater appreciation of the dialectical interplay between the cold stream and the warm stream would have served him much better. It is also what we need today.

Nyx: Bloch draws attention to the fact that many Marxists after Marx took what the latter said of religion in a very narrow sense, distorting its significance. How does Bloch revive the depth of what Marx thought about religion?

PT: He often quotes Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge from 1843, where he says that we are not starting a new project, but realising the dreams which humanity has always had. Of course, given that human history had and still has always been influenced if not dominated by religious thought, then it is absolutely necessary to understand properly what religion actually stands for. The full quote from Marx is that religion is the heart of a heartless world and the sigh of the oppressed creature and that the flowers of religion and ideology have to be plucked from the chains of oppression so that the chains become clear. What Ernst Bloch does it is to look at nature of the flowers that we have used to hide our oppression and to see whether there are any blossoms there that can be used for both the breaking of chains as well as the establishment of a new and different world beyond exploitation and oppression.

Whereas most Marxists, and indeed most rationalists, tend to think you can just throw away the flowers, Bloch believes that they actually tell us something important about both our current psychology as well as our dreams for the future. He had no time for people who saw religious belief as a simple “delusion”. One always has to ask what form this delusion takes and why and, more importantly, whether it is actually useful in helping us to understand what we really want. For example, he says that the idea of the “withering away of the state” in Engels is actually a description of the cultural and psychological changes which have to happen in order for one to really be able to fully love ones neighbour. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” – which sums up Marx’s view (in the Gotha Programme) of what a future communist society would look like — is, in the end, a religious idea with a long history. What he also pointed out constantly was that the best thing about religion was that it created heretics. If we look in his book Atheism in Christianity, we find quite clearly that attitudes to Jesus separate into two different categories: those who see him as the son of God and are therefore on the side of authority and control through the church, and those who see him as the son of man and who are therefore on the side of man against authority and oppression. So, even though he was an atheist he was constantly asking how we might maintain the liberationist Christ impulse after the death of God.

We can see from this how his ideas about religion became very influential in the 1960s and 70s amongst liberation theologists. This is the reason, for example, that one finds his works translated more into Spanish than into English. Bloch saw religion, or rather the religious impulse, as belonging to the warm stream of the Marxist tradition. Rather than trying to destroy religion (rather than church authorities) in some sort of crazed hyper-rationalist frenzy, it was necessary to harness its power for the purposes of liberation. In Atheism in Christianity, he also points out that the descent of the workers movement into Stalinism was very much like the descent of the Christian message of liberation into the Catholic Church, in which the son of man was replaced by the son of God. The parallels are quite clear I think.

Nyx: Finally, you’re currently writing a monograph on the contemporary relevance of Marx; I wonder, though, what you think the contemporary relevance of Bloch is for Marxist theory.

PT: Openness.

Marxism, if it is to survive at all, must stop being a set of dogmas and must become an open system that is prepared to engage fully with all those interested in the abolition of oppression and ignorance. I am not saying that Marxism must give up the fight for ideological clarity in favour of some sort of post modernist theoretical egalitarianism — some truths are more equal than others, after all — but it must be prepared to admit that it might not have all the answers. I open my book on Marx with the statement that Marxism is the depleted uranium of political philosophy in that its hard-headed ideological clarity cuts through the cant and hypocrisy of bourgeois liberalism but at the same time it has no fire left to melt the frozen ground of the dialectic. The only way in which Marxism will be able to play a role in future political developments is for it to get out of the snowglobe of its own doctrinal discussions and engage with real people and their real concerns. In many ways we are back in 1934, where forces who speak dangerous rubbish, but speak it to the people — history, the first time as tragedy, the second time as Farage – are winning out over those who speak sense, but only about things. Anyone who has sat in endless Marxist conferences is well aware of the limitations of this.

Peter Thompson is Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies and Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on the history of the German workers’ movement, German politics and philosophy and recently co-edited, with Slavoj Žižek, The Privatization of Hope. Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, (Duke University press, 2013).

The Spectre of Engels

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By Mark Rainey & Steve Hanson, Manchester Left Writers, 2014

In the summer of 2009, archaeologists in central Manchester removed the tarmac and cobblestone surface of the Miller Street carpark, revealing cellar slum dwellings from the early industrial era. The excavation was carried out in preparation for the construction of One Angel Square – the new headquarters of the Co-op Group which now stands on the site. For a brief moment, through the work of digger and trowel, the cellars of Miller Street had returned to the landscape.

Friedrich Engels described this street, along with many others, in his 1845 work The Condition of the Working Class in England. The grinding poverty. The ill-ventilation and suffocating filth. The cramped, crowded living spaces. The mixture of human and animal life. And the mixture of human, animal and chemical waste. The text, in parts, becomes a visual and olfactory tour of early industrial Manchester.

Miller Street is mentioned twice as Engels compared the ‘old town’ with the ‘new town’. Each was as bad as the other. The old town was the remnants of pre-industrial Manchester. Its dilapidated buildings and unplanned streets were being used to house thousands and thousands of migrants in what Engels often likened to, ‘cattle sheds for human beings’. (1845/2005, p.90) The new town, a section of the city which included Miller Street, had the appearance of better housing. Yet, this ‘appearance’ merely concealed cheap construction, ill-repair and the use of cellars and back courts for housing. In the older and newer sections of the city, from Long Millgate to Miller Street, every space was filled, pressured and squeezed. These slums were a means to ‘plunder the poverty of the workers, to undermine the health of thousands, in order that they only, the owners, may grow rich’. (ibid, p.92) If the built environment was a means to wring further profit out of the lower classes, it was also constructed in such a way to conceal this fact. Streets extended outwards from the Exchange – the centre of the global cotton trade – cutting through the slums and factory districts to provide an uninterrupted link to the suburban, bourgeois areas. Urban space was so designed that businessmen could ‘take the shortest road through the middle of the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and left’. (ibid, p.86) These thoroughfares were essentially physical lines of capital that served to conceal the abject spaces at the very heart of this vast accumulation of wealth. In The Condition Engels provided a definitive account of the industrial city and its forms of exploitation, accumulation and concealment and it’s worth noting that this account prefigured the Chicago School’s concentric zone model of urban development by over eighty years, although Engels’ description is one of contained, crushing poverty rather than outward and upward mobility.

Returning to these observations may not offer much in terms of new insight. But alongside the return of the Miller Street slums in 2009 and our subsequent return to Engels’ text, we might pose another return: what if Engels were to return to Manchester? How might he re-access the city and, in particular, the contemporary city?

If Engels were to return, the Miller Street archaeological dig would have been a good point of entry. Here Engels would have encountered the familiar and the strange, the known and the new. And perhaps a new approach to his ethnography would have emerged from this. A return to Miller Street would not so much have been to visit a ‘site’ as it would have been to follow a ‘trace’. Rather than an isolated piece of heritage, the archaeological site would need to be reconsidered as a detail that set in motion a series of links – from early industrial Mancunian slums, to the Co-op Bank and the wider financial crisis of 2008. In contemporary Manchester, Engels would have to follow new lines of geography – ones that not only stretched to the suburbs, but also globally. And they do so at different speeds, from the car-commute to the nanosecond of receive-and-send information exchange. But some of this would come as no surprise to Engels. For most of his life he held a managerial position within a Dutch-German manufacturing company operating in the north of England. The international circulation of capital was already a lived reality.

To propose Engels’ return is not so far-fetched. He did return, in the flesh, in 1848, following the failed revolutions on the European continent. During his four-year absence the city had undergone significant change, both physical and political. There were slum clearances as Oxford Road Station replaced the ‘Little Ireland’ district. And in a hugely symbolic act, the city’s more liberal businessmen had erected the Free Trade Hall on the site of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre – connecting their campaign for free trade to the city’s radical democratic past. In all of this, the class divisions embedded in the city’s landscape were no longer so pronounced. Manchester had shifted from ‘black and white’ to ‘shades of grey’ as Engels’ biographer, Tristram Hunt, has put it. (2009) Engels recognised this. In his 1892 preface to the English edition of The Condition he wrote, ‘‘Little Ireland has disappeared, and the ‘Seven Dials’ are next for the list of sweeping away. But what of it? […] The bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working class’. (2005, p.37) For Engels, the processes of concealment that he observed almost fifty years earlier were being extended. We suspect that if Engels were to make a return to Miller Street in 2009, or One Angel Square in 2014, he would easily familiarise himself with the uneven processes underpinning the city’s ‘regeneration’ and it would likely come as no surprise that despite Manchester’s much lauded redevelopment, the city remained a national leader in child poverty. (Child Poverty Map of the UK, 2012, p.9) However, it might need to be explained to Engels how history – and even dark history – is packaged and deployed in such processes. He would need to look no further than One Angel Square as the name of the building is a direct reference to Angel Meadow, the very slum district to which Miller Street once belonged.

Cellars, an archaeological site, One Angel Square. 1845, 2009, 2014. Early Industrial Manchester, the financial crisis, the collapse of the Co-op Bank. We don’t need to imagine Engels physically present to make these connections, to follow these traces. If we speak of ‘traces’ we can also speak of ‘spectres’. Both are terms attached to the work of Jacques Derrida. But here we enter risky territory. Derrida can lead us somewhere, but he can also lead us nowhere. In his work Specters of Marx he reminds us of the different, competing spectral forms of communism and capitalism – the always-yet-to-come and the repetition of the same. (1994) For Derrida, the text is paradigm and the yet-to-come is structured through traces that disrupt attempts to fix or contain meaning. Marxism declares its openly spectral form in the first line of The Communist Manifesto. It haunts capital and it refuses to let the spectre of capital appear as finished business.

Spectres are untimely and with their return we do not know if they are testifying to a living past or a living future. (1994, p.11) By invoking the spectre of Engels, we want to reckon with our past as well as our future, both of which are entwined with circuits of capital accumulation and forms of concealment. Yet, do to this effectively, we must move away from Derrida’s textual paradigm to more concrete accounts. We need to gather and follow through material traces, the literal debris of history – like the Miller Street archaeological site, with its links to industrial slums and One Angel Square.

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded that Marxism was not the only working-class movement to have direct links to the city. In 1844, while Engels was walking the Manchester slums with the Burns sisters, the Rochdale Pioneers opened their first shop in Rochdale, just north of the city. It operated according to principles laid out by the British socialist, Robert Owen, and is now regarded as the birthplace of the modern co-operative movement. However, the shop didn’t gain local traction until the collapse of the Rochdale Savings Bank in 1849 after which people began to see the co-operative as a safer alternative. A neat 160 years later, in 2009, in the midst of another financial crisis and as the excavation on Miller Street was preparing the way for One Angel Square, the Co-op Bank would acquire the Britannia Building Society. Like so many other financial institutions at the time, the Britannia was saddled with bad debt. In a move that mimicked more profit-driven rather than collectivist banks, the Co-op Bank, a subsidiary of the Co-op Group, had sought out struggling institutions to acquire and increase its own scale. Whether out of hubris or incompetence (or both), this would lead to the near-collapse of the Co-op Bank in 2013. With a £1.5 billion short-fall, the Co-op Bank would be taken-over by two American hedge funds, Aurelius and Silverpoint, with the Co-op Group only remaining a minority shareholder. The Co-op Bank was ‘rescued, capitalist style’, as the Wall Street Journal has said. (2013)

Today, in 2014, we can gaze up at One Angel Square and be reminded of the spectre of capital and its recurring cycles of boom and bust. In 1849 this provided an opportunity for the co-operative movement, but in 2014 only setback. The Co-op Bank is no longer a co-operative. And its ‘ethical investment policy’ is now only once removed from wherever Aurelius and Silverpoint decide to circulate their capital, or whoever moves capital through them, or whoever they might sell their shares on to. It’s been emptied out and left as a sort of animated corpse.

1845, 2009, 2014. The cellars of Miller Street, an archaeological dig and One Angel Square. We have seen how one site can become a trace that allows us to sketch out the uneven and concealed geographies of capital and its repetitions of boom and bust that not only offer opportunities for alternatives but also, and most often, a chance for capital to re-assert itself. We have used the figure of Engels to help us think this through and have made reference to the work of Derrida. And here we wish to stake out our final claim. Derrida’s book, Spectres of Marx, was of its time. Written after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it acted as a counter to the triumphant rhetoric of capitalism. Yet, for Derrida, the spectre of Marx is never realised. It only ever tails capitalism with constant critique. We have to move on from here. Capitalism is no longer triumphalist in our post-2008 world, but it remains increasingly pervasive, positioning itself as the corrective to the very problems it has initiated. As the Manchester Left Writers have stated, the left needs to ‘reoccupy the present and the future, actually, physically and politically’. (2014) And working through material traces, as a practice of writing, can be a small step in that direction.

 

References:

Derrida, J. Specters of Marx. (1994) Peggy Kamuf (trans). London: Routledge.

Engels, F. (1845/2005) The Condition of the Working Calls in England. London: Penguin Books.

Hunt, T. (2009) The Frock-Coated Communist: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels. London: Penguin.

Manchester Left Writers. (2014) Broadside 001: The State of Scripts. http://manchesterleftwriters.wordpress.com/broadsides/

Wall Street Journal. ‘Co-op Bank Rescued, Capitalist Style’. 4 November, 2013.

 

 

 

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Interview with the 7×8 Kuratoren Collective

Nyx, a Noctournal interviews the 7×8 Kuratoren collective.  7×8 is an international group of curators and artists formed in 2013 in the cities of Vienna and Budapest.  Responses are provided by Ya’el Santopinto, Roberta Palma, Ashlee Conery,  Kimi Kitada, Ho Leng, and Jordana Franklin.

7x8curators.blogspot.co.uk

7X8 Kuratoren is a multi-national collective of curators formed during an 8 week project exploring the contemporary art scene in Vienna and Budapest.  These 8 weeks are now long past, but as a collective you still  ‘wish to continue to examine the edges of contemporary curatorial practice’. What are these edges? More  specifically how do you view the changing set of relations between curators and audiences, curators and artists, curators and art spaces?

For 7X8, curation is itself an endlessly evolving set of relationships. It is a practice set, always and inextricably, by the shifting horizons against which it finds itself. For 7X8, these horizons are marked by deinstitutionalization, increasingly informal gallery structures, and the unstoppable and widespread dissemination of curating as a method across disciplinary boundaries. As a collective entity, 7X8 has worked to explore these shifting edges through event- and exhibition-based explorations of political activism, radical archival practices, public realm interventions and other interfaces with music, street art, collecting practices and participatory models. In the face of the dissolution of traditional roles, it is the unique responsibility of the curator to be constantly engaged in the reinvention of her practice. She may be called upon to become a translator, interpreter, critic, activist or archivist at any moment. This demand to be a nimble practitioner signals, for 7X8, the growing relevance of collective curatorial practices. A changing horizon demands a multiple set of approaches, a process that embraces and makes visible conflict and dissent, and a series of iterative, laboratory-style experiments on the ever-expanding boundaries of curatorial practice.

(Ya’el Santopinto)

 

Recently a visitor to the Perez Art Museum, Miami, smashed a $1 million Ai Weiwei vase in apparent protest at the gallery not showcasing  local artwork. Do you  think the protest raised important issues or was it more reactionary and sensationalist?  In your experience of the contemporary art scenes in Vienna and Budapest, what were the relations between the cities, venues and local  artists?

Whether it was a sensational act or an extreme action, coming from a deep discontent, it raises a couple of questions impossible to ignore for art observers. To run over some of them, this act of destruction and, at the same time, imitation, makes me think that maybe museums are often perceived like cathedrals, where artworks represent idols, something sacred and untouchable that have to be contemplated. Ai Weiwei’s Colored Vases expresses the willingness to overtake this belief, even when we look at ancient art.  But, as Ai Weiwei’s own photo series ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ is said by the artist ‘to express the notion that new ideas and values can be produced through iconoclasm’, the protester unwillingly provokes a short circuit by protesting against protest art.

This makes me think of what happened last week at the Uffizi, Florence. A young Spanish boy got naked in a sort of adoration in front of Botticelli’s Spring, then he asked to the policeman if someone had recorded him. In a superficial and overstated way, this guy raises the question: how are we expected to react in front of art? The press underlines the sensationalistic and economic aspect of art in order to catch people’s attention. A couple of months ago, millions of people went crazy for Vermeer’s Girl with Pearl Earring exhibited here in Italy, just because of its popularity. Does anyone know that you can see Caravaggio’s works for free inside churches in Rome? We have lost the safety-critic distance from art, and is not an easy task for museums to build a good relation with territory and represent, at the same time, the globalised art world. Vienna is a good example in this practice, because the city has an entire district dedicated to museums and art spaces. It means that, from the Mumok to the Quartier21, big exhibitions of international artists as well as temporary projects made by young curators could find their own space. The Museum Quarter is placed in the city centre, so its also a public space. Nonetheless, not every city has the chance to dedicate this amount of funding and spaces to art. In Budapest, for example, public institutions are suffering for lack of resources and, I had the feeling that, this encourages non- institutional spaces to take care of the local art scene, increasing art activities and creating a more direct relationship with local artists and citizens

(Roberta Palma)

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                                                        Letting My Hair Grow.  Marlene Haring (credit).

Should an Ai Weiwei vase ever be valued at $1 million?

Ai Weiwei’s colourful Han Dynasty vases are not worth a million dollars. With only a little digging one discovers that the police invented the number with the help of museum security staff. The number was a placeholder required for making a conviction and the curatorial staff were not actually consulted for this early evaluation. Leann Standish, deputy director at Miami’s Pérez Art Museum, where the vase was smashed during an ongoing retrospective of Ai Weiwei’s work, confirmed that ‘they will most likely determine that the vase is worth much less’. Ai Weiwei himself commented to the press that the million-dollar price tag was ‘a very ridiculous number’. The New Yorker’s Ben Mauk, raised a valuable point in relation to the event: art critics/media used to be focus on the art, the introduction of new styles, schools and themes by contemporary artists. Now, he suggested, ‘it is the phenomenon of art as investment that seems to interest readers’ and therefore garners the attention of the media. The value of art is indisputably abstract, fabricated by a series of rumours and well-placed validations by those in the upper echelons of the art world. The art market has successfully run for hundreds of years without the checks and balances one might expect for deals ranging in the millions. Most have come to accept, and even revel in, the mystery of it all. However, Mauk suggests a truly distressing cultural indifference toward the value of art in society. That at present the public expresses little interest in what art commemorates about our lives and notices only what it earns in our lifetime.

(Ashlee Conery)

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                                                         Very Expensive Push Broom. Mark Wagner

7×8 Kuratoren was formed, in part, in Vienna. In your  opinion, what is the most important legacy of the Vienna Actionists?

In 1970, after his cruel action Zerreissprobe, Gunter Brus was compelled to interrupt his auto-destruction project, because it became too much for his family and himself. Then, he found the practice of the Bild-Dichtung (an ensemble of poetry and image) as the natural continuation of his art. For Austrian art history, it wasn’t easy to recognise and officialise the importance of Viennese Actionism, but today, it represents an unquestionable – and sometimes cumbersome – historical condition for contemporary artists. Anyway, we should consider that contemporary art has inherited the radicalism of Actionism together with its limits. Today it is still not easy to show a video of Gunter Brus without any shocking reaction, while we are more comfortable with photos and stills images. I would say that one of the legacies of Actionism is the importance of gesture and the subversive value of action (theatrical and ritual) in art. Gesture – unlike language – has the ability of showing us our life, without the safe distance, lies or interpretation that are used to filter words and images. Viennese Actionists used this feature, together with body exploration, and pushed it to the extreme limit of audience expectation. Contemporary artists have now to reflect on what part of this drastic art could still survive in our society. We still have lots of taboos, but we are also surrounded by pornography, we are accustomed to be shocked by art, but we still need to find everyday stronger impulses to make us reflect on society and sexuality. Actionism represents an historical requirement for artists about where to move on to and discover new modalities of communication – overtaking and reflecting on what today is not a scandal any more.

(Roberta Palma)

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                                                        Touch Cinema. Valie Export. 1968

The Hungarian artist and Bauhaus Professor, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, stated that ‘the experience of space is not the privilege of the gifted few, but a biological function’. In view of this, to what extent is curatorial practice the production and arrangement of the experience of space by a privileged and gifted few? And do you think that the everyday, biological experience of space is somehow excluded from the qualified space of art?

Curatorial practice can be defined by a number of key elements such as the audience, space, and artwork. The constructed space of an exhibition compels the viewer to engage immediately in the biological function of “looking” and other senses become secondary in that instant. The production and arrangement of contemporary art often becomes an experience for the “privileged and gifted few” when some exhibitions create a dialogue with art historical precedents, establish a complex conceptual framework, or the interpretive wall text is written in academic language and contemporary art jargon. In this sense, the biological experience of the space is shared among the viewers, but the levels of perception and comprehension may vary depending on the personal lens of the individual.

Recently, as museums have shifted focus more heavily on the audience and attracting a wider public, a number of strategies have attempted to address the limited demographic of the museum-going public, or the so-called privileged few. In mainstream museums over the past several years, the influx of large-scale participatory works – Carsten Höller: Experience at New Museum (2011-2012); Tomás Saraceno’s Cloud City at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012); Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored infinity rooms at the Whitney Museum of American Art (2012) and David Zwirner Gallery (2013) – prompts viewers to interact with an artwork on a full-body, more physical level. In light of this trend toward participation and interactivity, the biological experience of space becomes a collective experience and in a way, democratizes the space and provides a point of accessibility for the larger public. Moreover, by utilizing social media platforms, some museums  have incorporated voices of the audience into the didactic wall panels to establish a relatable, intelligible tone from their fellow visitors. These strategies are by no means a solution to expanding the museum-going audience, but they are an effective step in the direction of creating an open and inclusive space for experiencing contemporary art.

(Kimi Kitada)

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Yayoi Kusuma.  Courtesy of Steven Meidenbauer (www.thisiscolossal.com)

Given that the 1920s avant-garde –particularly the Russian Constructivists – attempted to incorporate art into everyday life, and thus attempted to repeal the bourgeois conception of art as an autonomous domain- a conception active since roughly the French Revolution -, and given that this attempt failed, since the everyday life of commodity consumption ultimately acculturated art to the imperatives of mass production and exchange, have we come full circle? That is, following Adorno, might we best assert an autonomous place for art, even if, as Adorno also says, this is a somewhat fetishistic gesture?

Your question reads of a familiar text from the content of Adorno’s letters to Benjamin from 1935 to 1938.  Such a distinction between an autonomous and contemporary conception of art could be perceived as a political gesture by artists, whose legacies harnessed art-making associated with their relationship to society.  Quoting from Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone, “[…] the map is closed, but the autonomous zone is open. Metaphorically it unfolds within the fractal dimensions invisible to the cartography of Control.” Hakim’s idea clearly defines the Bauhaus school, which drew modernistic values from Russian constructivism, to the manufacturing of ordinary homeware products, to German architectural style – ‘the international style’ as we know. It’s functional, pragmatic and minimalistic quality is still being implemented in most of the world’s apartment blocks and public housing blueprints. The consumer culture will never cease; it is the heart of our civilization now. We cannot escape the fact that we need to consume everyday, whether it is for basic needs or one’s superficial lifestyle. I do not agree that art in everyday life has come to a standstill after post-constructivism, which in turn, the 21st century has produced a stewardship of contemporary artists whose works are not just representational but ideological and intervention based. Of course, the reproduction of art or medium used today is neither new, in terms of techniques and craftsmanship, nor the appreciation of art is only meant for the bourgeoisie. However, if we were to look at Takashi Murakami’s work with Louis Vuitton, which won him ‘fame and notoriety as an artist who blurs the line between ‘high art’ and commercialism’, one may speculate that artistic practices are driven by popular culture. We could argue that the polysemy of art has evolved the commodity into its own realm of popular culture by artists –Andy Warhol, the Bauhaus School, Murakami, Hayao Miyazaki (just to name a few)– who had/ have the means of an atelier system. The expropriation of art contains no boundaries from a productionist’s consciousness to the epoch of a consumer society. As Adorno wrote in his letter, ‘The fetish character of the commodity is not a fact of consciousness; rather, it is dialectical, in the eminent sense that it produces consciousness’. This extraordinary fecundity of the commodity-self in art stands as testimony for the desire of our social transition as the modernity-self – whose indulgence of being ‘cool’ is in subsuming art in the seduction of capitalism.

“Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art,” as Andy Warhol famously said. “Making money is art and working is art and having good business is the best art.”

(Ho Leng)

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‘Michael Jackson and Bubbles’. (www.jeffkoonversailles.com)

What’s more important during an exhibition launch: viewing  artwork, networking or neither?

In a special issue of the journal PUBLIC devoted to the study of “scenes,” author Alan Blum posits whether a city can have a thriving arts scene in the absence of local artistic production. Blum’s question compels us to consider the role of art in creating personal attachments.

As a gallery director, I believe that both networking and art viewing are integral to a successful launch (at least in part because connections alone do not cover the gallery’s overhead.) And while I would hesitate to create a hierarchy, I believe it’s worth noting that people are drawn to openings by the promise of one of these two activities and upon arrival, will often experience both.

However, we also must ask what types of connections are being formed at exhibition launches. Two Toronto-based artists recently endeavoured to stimulate conversations that go beyond the pleasantries passed at art openings by converting the front room of their home into a gallery space. Visitors are greeted by their warm hosts, a cup of tea, and a comfortable seating area, all of which provoke longer and deeper discussions than those that occur at formal launches. Consequently, it would appear that while both are important, more could be done to better facilitate the networking component.

(Jordana Franklin)

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Chris Walsh Opening.

Cultural Studies Occasional #2: Steve Hanson

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In the second of our Cultural Studies Occasional series, Nyx catches up with Steve Hanson. Steve is an Associate Lecturer at Goldsmiths and the University of Salford. We forego the usual interview format with Steve providing a sort of monologue about what he terms an ‘idiosyncratic geography of cultural studies’. It weaves together place and personal biography with the figures and texts of cultural studies: Hoggart, Hall, Williams and Said via Halifax, Hereford and New Cross.

My journey through British Cultural Studies is also a real set of journeys in Britain. The subject is meshed with some of the places I have inhabited – there’s a geography of British Cultural Studies which is crucial to how I think through the subject. But also, I can’t think of British Cultural Studies as an isolated island either. It is wrapped up with the history of British art schools, for instance, and this is crucial to the way I think about it and this island I live on. It ties in with other ‘schools’ and traditions, and continental movements and philosophies, and ‘diasporic’ cultures.

For instance, I worked in Halifax for a long time and E.P. Thompson once lived there. I discovered that Ralph Rumney, later of the Situationist International, who lived with Pegeen Guggenheim, ran away from his strict clergyman father in Halifax and lived with Thompson there for a while. He’d been grassed on for getting de Sade out of Halifax library. Later, he went to Paris and met Debord. That little biographical detail is such a massive historical juncture for me. There’s still such a lot which remains unexplored in relation to those figures. And personally, I think of the little places they were from, or inhabited, as a kind of map of my own brain and ‘experience’, to use a very Raymond Williams term. Provincial, often grim Halifax. I spent so much time there, but there’s this strong crossroads of the British left and art school traditions, moving into Paris and the avant garde and anti-art movements like the S.I., and they can be accessed by thinking about these brief moments in these supposedly ‘nowhere’ places.

Jeff Nuttall was around there too, in Halifax, involved with Dean Clough, and in Bradford and Todmorden. For me, the shifts in British art school education can’t be viewed as separate from the shifts in British Cultural Studies or the arrival of ‘theory’ from the continent. Jeff taught me briefly. E.P. Thompson was travelling all around those places as a WEA [Workers Education Association] lecturer – another part of the story and geography, the WEA – and he tried to unearth old communists in the area. But Ralph Rumney in E.P. Thompson’s house, a brief time in one place, speaks to all those larger narratives. Someone should make a film about those brief days, in that house. Can you imagine? We could even start to cast it, to pick actors. Apparently, when Rumney was on the run from Peggy Guggenheim, Jacques Lacan had him ‘sectioned’ to allow him to escape, and gave him a greenhouse to paint in. Just think about all that.

I went to art school – actually I went several times, I seemed to need it – that was the only way to get time to develop for us after school. It was factory work or supermarket work, or sign on and sign up for a course. Or those seemed to be the only options then and there. By a total coincidence, I eventually ended up teaching in the art school in Hereford for five years – as a Cultural Studies lecturer – where Jeff Nuttall was a student, he actually ended up marrying his painting teacher from Hereford. So much of that landscape speaks to my understanding of British Cultural Studies, but also how for me I’ve fused my understanding of it with some perhaps more art school influenced and continental things.

I moved to Abergavenny and commuted to Hereford, because Jeff’s old jazz band still played Sunday gigs there. And I wanted the ‘otherness’ of Wales if I’m honest. I realised shortly after relocating, that down the road were Raymond Williams’s birth and burial places, Pandy and Clodock church. A friend of mine, John Percival, had Williams’s own copy of Long Revolution, it had his sticker in the front. He brought it out to the pub once. The local bookshop were given some of his volumes to sell, after Williams died in 1988, and John had picked them up for pence. It was just ordinary, there and then.

Williams begins ‘Culture is Ordinary’ with Hereford Cathedral and the Mappa Mundi which were only a short walk from the site I taught at in Hereford. [1] So I used to give students ‘Culture is Ordinary’, after the entry on ‘Culture’ from Keywords, and walk them over to the cathedral to read the opening sections of it. It was one way to try to make what they were getting immediately relevant. It was still possible to get a bus towards Wales from there, but not really down the same route. The Hereford new road had eclipsed the Hereford old road, there’s an old bridge and new bridge too now, and the road speaks volumes about Williams’s concerns and his rather clunky terms like ‘mobile privatisation’. I did walk the old road many times though, thinking about the journey in ‘Culture is Ordinary’. The new and old road stand as a metaphor for the old left Cultural Studies practitioners, and the next generation, coming through via Stuart Hall, and those increasingly concerned with cultural speed-up and media. Of course, there’s a shift away from the dogmatic Lukacsian focus on ‘class consciousness’ here too, and towards a more flexible, yet no less left wing take on culture, in the new left’s turn to Gramsci.

As you can see, the way I think is often via these almost occult inner maps, via the places and details and biographies and historical accidents I know about. What I am saying here is that I have my own Mappa Mundi of British Cultural Studies, and the territories it is linked to. Williams drops that arcane object, the Mappa Mundi, into the start of ‘Culture is Ordinary’ very purposefully. He’s making a new, big map of Culture. These maps have to be, like the Mappa Mundi, redrawn constantly, and they will always be perhaps twenty percent objective and eighty percent subjective.

I got the train from Abergavenny to Hereford most days for five years, to teach Cultural Studies in the art school, and the signal box flashes past – it must be the box from Border Country, there’s only one – but what one notices is that it’s full of electronic lights and wiring now. This obscure box and the new road to Hereford became key to the way I thought about borders and the way they’d shifted, and therefore it altered my relationship to Williams’s work.

But I risk looking like a provincial bumpkin here. The link between Williams’s Border Country and Edward Said’s work, thinking through borderlands and culture and conflict, is stitched into this landscape too. I’m not sure who it was – it might have been Jonathan Rutherford – who said that Said’s being a New Yorker and Palestinian, everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, inside some important discourses and yet in so many ways just anybody, mapped on to Williams’s subject position, and my own.

When I got to Goldsmiths to do an MA in 2003, I discovered there was a Richard Hoggart building and that Hoggart had inscribed books in the library, such as the hardback copy of McLuhan’s Counterblast – I guessed that it was sent back to Goldsmiths during his UNESCO days – and all of this seemed right somehow, and somebody maybe better take that book out of the library now.

That book and place seemed to be further important points on this map of mine. And of course McLaren and Westwood were there and King Mob and Linton Kwesi Johnson, et cetera. The place is also framed in so many ways by British Art school genealogies, as well as genealogies from territories geographically off the island. If you talked to Les Back, I bet he’d take you straight to Croydon from here.

None of my monologue really says much that’s substantive about the work of any of those thinkers. But the key thing I want to communicate here is that it is through ordinary people and places that I think about the thinkers. I don’t think through these places via supposedly ‘lofty’ theorists, and of course there’s something of the so- called ‘inversion’ of Hegel done by Marx in this, even though Hegel isn’t quite hung all the way round to dry.

All my work has since moved away from the ‘Cultural Studies’ teaching I used to get paid for, and still sometimes do – in art schools specifically – and into looking at small towns and what used to be called Community Studies.

I miss teaching Cultural Studies in art schools all the time actually. But what I wanted to communicate here was the perhaps idiosyncratic way I think through these traditions, rather than saying anything about the way the subject is moving, which I’m sure others can do better in any case. I know that British Cultural Studies is being refigured, friends of mine like David Wilkinson are rolling their sleeves up to do exactly that.

But all of this is why, for me, ‘Culture is Ordinary’ has not really been eclipsed as a starting point for British Cultural Studies. I gave a seminar on it last week. I could also talk about the significance of 1958, the year it came out, alongside other developments, and how I map that out, but that’s maybe for later. I think that ‘Culture is Ordinary’ is still the best starting point for learning about or working in British Cultural Studies. And of course it needs to be gendered, coloured through, rendered complex – and it has been, actually.

‘Culture is ordinary: that is the first fact’, and through all the changes to come, through all the nuancing and re-figuring of the subject, which has to happen, we must hold to that, even if everything else has to go. What I’ve said here has tried to exemplify the ordinariness of thinking required to do that.

[1] The Mappa Mundi is a 13th Century map inscribed on calf-skin in Hereford Cathedral. It depicts the known and the imagined world.

Cultural Studies Occasional #1: David Wilkinson

Cultural-Studies-Occasional_1

This is the first of our occasional interview series exploring cultural studies research and practice outside Goldsmiths’ Centre for Cultural Studies.  Nyx met up with David Wilkinson, a Research Assistant at the University of Reading.  In this interview David calls for a return to cultural materialism, particularly that of Raymond Williams, and discusses his own research into sexuality and punk.  

The interview was conducted by Mark Rainey and took place in a ‘pop-up’ bar in front of Gypsy Hill station, London.

Mark Rainey: This is a short question – how do you define cultural studies?

David Wilkinson: Cultural studies is, or it should be, a political intervention by left intellectuals on questions of culture.  That is its history and this is a history that I don’t think is looked at with enough detail nowadays.  If the political commitment isn’t there, then it is not cultural studies, really.  I also think that it’s original aims of democratising culture and making it relevant are still crucial to a definition of cultural studies.

MR:  It’s the political aims that define it for you.  But what are those political aims?

DW: The analysis of culture as ‘lived’ within society.  The analysis of how it is economically produced.  And the connection between culture and consumer capitalism.   That’s a massive aspect of cultural studies.  There is also all the advances in looking at the questions of race, gender, sexuality and class and of course colonialism and post-colonialism.

MR: You’re currently working in a history department.  Can you give a brief outline of your research?

DW: We find refuge where we can, don’t we?  I always liked history, but I never thought I would be a ‘history academic’.  I’m not really.  I’m doing cultural studies.

I’m working as a research assistant for a historian who is writing a history of punk.  But my angle on it is sexuality and punk.  I did my PhD on the post-punk era and the New Left and libertarian-left strand in post-war British culture.   It was on how this strand fell into the post-punk moment –  what the politics of it all were, at the moment that Thatcherism, new conservatism and the new right were on the rise and what the hell kind of thing came out of all that, if you like.  There were a lot of issues coming out of that, including class and gender.  But I never got around to sexuality, so that is where I’ve got to now.

MR: You’ve said you’re doing cultural studies and that cultural studies is defined by its political aims.  What are the political aims of doing research on sexuality and punk?

DW: It’s almost a subcultural question, that.  Where is counter-culture now and where is gay subculture?  Where do they find themselves and what are the issues confronting them?  What are the political and cultural issues?  You can find answers to those questions by looking back at punk.  It’s quite a critical moment for gay subculture and politics in Britain and broader counter-culture, if you like.  The cross-over is interesting and so are the sensibilities that are floating around in both.

MR: So looking at punk can help inform political and cultural practices today?

DW: Yes, I think so.  If you’re interested in gay culture today and counter-culture – whether that be music or whatever types of cultural dissident may be tied to youth culture, then by looking back at that moment you can learn a lot.  That includes everything from the politics of the music to the media discourses surrounding it and the way it was produced.  That’s what cultural studies should be really – a holistic approach.  And crucially, why it matters today.

MR: Can you say a bit more about what you mean by a ‘holistic approach’?

DW: One of the best legacies of cultural studies was to question, via various philosophical, political and theoretical means, the idealist notion of culture as separate from politics, social life and economics.  If we want to understand culture, as a human activity, we cannot separate it from all of those things.  What I also like about cultural studies’ past is that it preserves the utopian side of that idealist notion of culture, but without its downside.  Culture becomes potentially liberating, in some way.  Cultural studies had the best of both worlds in that sense.  It may have lost some of that now – but it’s still worth building on.

MR: Are there particular avenues of cultural studies that are important for your research?

DW: Cultural materialism is especially important and is due a resurgence.  Especially the later work of Raymond Williams.  The word ‘cultural materialism’ is deployed a lot although it is often removed from its original context.  I think Williams still has a lot to teach us.  The cultural materialist side gets left behind and cultural studies would gain something by re-assessing that moment rather than relegating it to history.  There are a lot of cultural studies courses, for sure, where you get modules that give a history of the discipline.  But so much of that involves talking about these people in order to safely relegate them to the past.  I think it’s a time for a real reappraisal of that history.

I think cultural studies took a bit of a turn for the worse from the 1980s onwards.  Part of that is the humanist elements of it falling away.  A lot structuralist, post-structuralist and post-modern theory is anti-humanist in origin and I think you lose a lot when that happens.  I also think there is a direct correlation between the rise of anti-humanism and the rise of neo-liberalism, although that is obviously a massive question and there is no room for it here.

MR: You’ve done an MA and PhD in literature and work in a history department, but practice cultural studies.  The term ‘interdisciplinary’ seems apt.  What do you make of it?

DW: It’s a funny one.  It muddies the waters a little bit.  It’s a convenient way of not discussing the history of cultural studies.  You can say, ‘We’re doing a bit of this, this and this’ but it’s a kind of re-inventing the wheel.  Cultural studies was born of that and that’s why it makes sense to talk about it now in terms of interdisciplinarity.  But I think there are different politics implied in cultural studies as a discipline and the way that word is bandied about now.  And I don’t think they are coming at it from the same angle really.

MR:  To return to an earlier point, the question of the political aims of cultural studies raises further questions about cultural studies and the institution.  Cultural studies is an institution and there are various versions of that institution in various universities.

DW: Again, that’s Williams, isn’t it?  The institutional question is vital.  University management’s tolerance of cultural studies is only going to last as long as cultural studies courses reshape themselves to say: ‘If you do this you can go into the media, advertising, PR, marketing.  You can set yourself up as a cultural entrepreneur because you know the cultural market.  You can do cultural semiotics and read culture trends.  You can whip a quick book out to help someone else.  You can completely betray the politics of cultural studies’.  I’ve seen courses starting to re-market themselves.  And I’m not castigating them because I understand the pressures that are upon them.  There is a neoliberal pressure to instrumentalise.  Too often, when faced with such pressures, academics will say ‘I’m an intellectual and don’t need to justify myself.  Civilised societies have intellectuals’.  Well, yes and no.  We need to think about what you are doing outside the academy.  We really do.  That’s something I’ve realised while doing my research and from my mentors:  ‘What broader relevance does this have?’.  It’s a valuable political-social critique of how we have lived, how we do live and how we might live.

They can and they will turf us out if we are not careful.  There are already far less cultural studies departments then there used to be.  They closed down the CCCS and that was clearly politically motivated.  It makes you think it might be time to do an AC Grayling, (although in a far less horrible, elitist way!) and think of alternative institutions.  That’s a very Williams’ theme.  There isn’t just the dominant.  There is the alternative and oppositional.  And institutions are a part of that.  You can build your own.   They might not be as powerful at first, but if you build momentum, they might be.

Another thing about cultural studies and the wider world and political movements relates to Alan Sinfield.  He’s a literary critic who carries on that tradition of cultural materialism and works in queer theory (and talks a lot of sense to queer studies).  He makes the point that cultural studies was once a part of the broad left in Britain that has taken a severe beating over the past 30-35 years.  Consequently cultural studies is quite stranded and isolated now.  It needs to make links with new political movements that are arising in opposition to austerity.  I’ve seen that happening and long may it continue.  We need more of it.

Issue 9: Vermin – Call for contributions

Issue 9: Vermin CfC

 

Rats. Cockroaches. Locusts. Plagues and infestations. Vermin are the unwanted, the weeds of the animal kingdom, the exterminable. They spread infection and disease and pose a threat to human life. For its ninth issue, Nyx, a noctournal seeks contributions that address the concept of vermin.

How can we think about the construction of vermin, particularly in relation to the human and social world?

Vermin. Those noxious elements, those patrons of the gutter, those outsiders, those parasites, those eyesores of an otherwise secure and vindicated environment. As the uncontrollable, as social scoundrels, vermin operate in those dark places, underground, seeking upward mobility or simply to feed off discards of the ethically sanitized. For that vermin carry the potential to cause harm. Vermin invest and infect the purity of the biological body, the harmony of the body politic. The rats, the underclass, the unproductive.

And yet, vermin spring from the very way in which the un-vermin live and think. Vermin strive on waste of productivity and are constituted by processes of social verminization, that is, by the un-vermin. To be vermin, then, is a state, a relation, a way of being far from inoculated from other states, other relations, and other ways of being.

We welcome submissions in the form of academic essays, pieces of journalism, fiction and experimental writing, images or other pieces of visual art.

Nyx, a noctournal is a print and online publication of critical theory, radical politics and art. It is peer reviewed by a collective of young researchers, activists and theorists and is based at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Brief proposals in abstract form, of no more than 500 words/3 images, should be sent along with a brief biography to noctournal@gmail.com by 31/10/13

In final form, written contributions will not exceed 2,500 words, and visual contributions should not exceed 6 images. All images submitted should be 300dpi resolution.

Nyx Blog: Call for Contributions

Image by Alessandro Ripane


 

Nyx, a Noctournal is a peer-reviewed print/online platform of cultural theory, politics and art. Whilst print is beautiful, online and open-access platforms hold great potential for sharing work with a growing network of new cultural theorists, activists, and art practitioners. And whilst we can’t pay for work, as our limited funds all go into costs of printing and launching the print journal, we can ensure it is edited, supported and shared with an international web of thinkers and graduate researchers.

Sound good? If you have ideas, work, images, research, recorded lectures or events you’d like to share, or have suggestions about content, email noctournal@gmail.com. To see the type of work we would particularly welcome, you can check out at the bottom some of the most recent material we have published on our blog. Ranging from articles, artworks, reviews, translations and audio/video recordings, our online content—as opposed to our print version—is less bound by the necessity to stick to an overarching theme.