- Category: Analysis
- Published on Tuesday, 21 October 2014
- Written by Richard Atkinson
Some arguments about the UK government's welfare reform programme
- They are not trying (very hard) to reduce welfare expenditure
- They do not want, at all, to reduce benefit dependency
- They are not interested in getting people into work ...
- … because they don’t know what to do with people when they are working
- They are not, exactly, aiming to abolish the welfare state…
- … not least because the present welfare state is their own, neoliberal, creation
- They are converting the DWP into a punitive arm of the state
- They are looking to create a low waged, unskilled, precarious workforce
- They are enforcing a patriarchal discipline on women and families by means testing
- They are winning ...
- ...and Universal Credit will seal their victory for a generation
- They have a problem with pensioners, which they have yet to sort out
- Labour are as deeply committed to these aims as the Tories
- Why it’s ‘Welfare’, not Social Security
- Why it’s back to 1601 not 1834
- No-one asked for welfare
- Against welfare: for class independence
Addendum- on proposals for an unconditional basic income Why unconditional basic income is not the same as negative income tax. Universal basic income is neither a panacea nor a neoliberal plot. Getting an unconditional basic income is not going to be easy.
- Category: Reviews
- Published on Saturday, 18 October 2014
- Written by Conor Kostick
Conor Kostick reviews The Event of Literature (Yale University Press) by Terry Eagleton
If The Matrix were a film about Literary Criticism, then Terry Eagleton would have been cast in the role of Morpheus. It’s easy to picture him, secure in a space of his own choosing, smiling and beckoning with a flick of his hand that his opponents should come and do their worst. And in the film version of The Event of Literature, every person seeking enlightenment by a different path than Eagleton’s would be sent sprawling by a good-natured clout to the head.
The Event of Literature might be a little less action-filled than The Matrix, but it has almost non-stop polemical confrontations to enjoy, even by readers, like myself, unfamiliar with the literary theorists addressed in the book. This is because Eagleton’s main concern here is to tackle the subject at a philosophical level and thus his comments typically have a relevance to all aesthetics, not just literary ones.
My friends over at the Association of Musical Marxists, for example, might take note of Eagleton’s passing observations on Adorno. Those who see the new as valuable in itself and the normative as inherently ossified easily fall into two errors, a blindness towards avant-garde forms that are sterile and a too-insensitive dismissal of all practices arising from well established norms.
While on the subject of the AMM, I once (a very long time ago) read an essay by one of its founders, Andy Wilson, on the compatibility of Wittgenstein’s epistemology with that of Marx. Evidence of such compatibility can be found in the writings of Terry Eagleton, which show that he has evolved a wonderful synthesis of the ideas of Marx and Wittgenstein.
An aspect of Wittgenstein’s work that is deeply appreciated by Eagleton is the sense that when reading the philosopher’s work, one is engaging with a mind in playful, ironic dialogue with itself, lucid in expression, but enigmatic in content (to quote from The Gatekeeper). It would not be right to say that Eagleton is enigmatic, most of the time his meaning could not be clearer if it were a slogan being chanted by thousands of demonstrators, but often Eagleton too writes in a playful and self-ironic mode. This is especially true when he approaches complex and multi-sided subjects; at these points a brusque, no-nonsense formulation would do as much harm as good.
As a case study of his methodology, Eagleton’s discussion of Realism versus Nominalism, with which he opens the book, serves well. Are general or universal categories in some sense real, à la Plato? Or – the Nominalist position - are abstract categories only ever the constructions of human minds? For the Nominalists, the real has to be particular. Comprehending the ideas of other writers and recasting them with brevity is one of Eagleton’s particular strengths and in this section he proceeds by examining the thoughts of Western philosophers through the ages, placing them on the Realist – Nominalist spectrum. Those philosophers who veer towards the extremes of either position, Eagleton takes to task.
So deft are Eagleton’s blows to the Realist tradition that at least one reviewer of The Event of Literature thought that he was here advocating a Nominalist point of view. But Eagleton metes out equally strong rebuttals to the one-sided Nominalists he discusses. Which leaves the reader where he wants us, thinking that universality and individuality cannot be antithetical. That this is Eagleton’s goal is evident from his approval of Marx’s writings on human beings in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. There Marx asserts that individual humans are distinct from one another, precisely because such individuation is a consequence of our ‘species-being’. One of the universal powers of homo sapiens is that of forming individuals.
This methodology, a series of zig-zagging critiques of first one side then the other, is crucial for Eagleton’s subsequent arguments concerning literature. The main body of the book is taken up with entertaining explorations of the limits of the – extraordinarily many – various schools of literary theory. His approach allows Eagleton to show that in many cases a theory founded on a mistaken definition of literature (definitions echoing the Realist – Nominalist debate), will collapse the living, multi-dimensional phenomenon that is literature into a (often dull) linear channel.
Now a lot of traditional Marxist aesthetics – say the meetings on art held at the UK SWP’s annual Marxism event (I was just now listening to the recording of John Molyneux’s talk on the subject) – understand art as in some way being a reflection of an historical moment. This, for Eagleton, is too simple-minded a dichotomy. A literary work is not a reflection of a history external to it but a ‘strategic’ labour, one that ‘paradoxically … projects out of its own innards the very historical and ideological subtext to which it is a strategic reply.’ (page 170) Trying to explain a person’s dream in terms of the state of global capitalism might yield an insight or two, but to ask what questions does the dream pose and address for the particular individual, and what does it reveal about his or her unconscious concerns, is immensely more fruitful.
Strategy is the key concept of The Event of Literature. Not in the sense of Napoleon’s generalship, but in defining a literary text as being a work whose efforts articulate a response to a particular historical or ideological subtext, a subtext that the work itself has fashioned and that does not exist ‘externally’. The strategic labour of a literary work is the way it sets to work on a reality that is contained within it. This sounds rather circular and perhaps those attuned to the dangers of post-modernism will now be hearing alarms, despite the fact that Eagleton is amongst the most militant opponents of post-modernism.
The circularity, however, is of the fecund, rather than sterile sort. The literary text is able to be something more than a resident in a closed world, due to the fact that it has simultaneously internalised something real and creatively reacted to this reality, to some extent forging a new one. It is possible, and seemingly easier (if it did not obscure matters at another level), to grasp at either side of this paradox by insisting that there is nothing beyond the text, or that the text is a direct reflection of an external world. In regard to the latter view, Eagleton quotes Jameson approvingly, ‘in order to act on the real, the text cannot simply allow reality to persevere in its being outside of itself, inertly, at a distance; it must draw the real into its own texture.’ Or, in his own words, ‘bodies and texts are self-determining, which is not to say they exist in a void. On the contrary, this self-determining activity is inseparable from the way they go to work on their surroundings.’ (page 209).
In the concept of literature as strategy, Eagleton believes he has a conceptual approach that allows us to see that some of the best insights of various literary schools, e.g. structuralism, semiotics, Freudianism, Formalism, etc are in fact related. Whilst they might not use the term strategy, each, when they are at their most insightful, approaches a similarly active understanding of literature. By elucidating this isomorphism and naming it – strategy – Eagleton has achieved something extraordinary, the equivalent of unifying quantum theory with gravitational theory, namely discovering a unifying literary theory.
Since he does not suffer from false modesty, this achievement is blown, like a triumphant fanfare of horns, by Eagleton himself at a number of points towards the end of the book. One might even call such a seminal book, if one were being playful, The Event of Literature. And why not? After all, despite his own repeated emphasis on what he himself sees as being the most important conclusion of his book, hardly any other review of The Event of Literature seems to have noticed what a major development of literary theory this is.
Eagleton’s potential allies on the Marxist left seem to have been in too much of a hurry to force the book into tired and decades-old formula. In Socialist Review, for example, we read that: ‘[Eagleton] berates those writers for whom theory is only about understanding the world, not changing it. Eagleton argues instead that literature is closely bound to its historical context …’ One can almost hear the repeated banging of a forehead against a table somewhere in Dublin.
This is not an easy work, but then books concerned with the philosophy of aesthetics are always going to be slow reads. And at least here the reader is in the hands of someone who writes with verve and wit. This book makes a huge contribution to literary theory and does so from a standpoint that we can gladly call our own.
- Category: Analysis
- Published on Thursday, 16 October 2014
- Written by Emma Rock
This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.
Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris's inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.
My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron's Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.
While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe's declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It's not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.
The origins of Morris dancing
The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare's time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.
Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.
How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community
From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only 'ring sides' and younger mixed groups often based around universities.
Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.
When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group 'Folk Against Fascism' which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.
Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?
Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.
There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don't want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, 'She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.'
Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>