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People bloody people just won’t do as they’re told, or think what they’re supposed to think. If there is a crisis in the Labour party, and if it is a crisis of leadership, it’s a crisis that brings to mind The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Andersen’s story of pomposity and self-delusion ending with a child, who hasn’t learned to be blind, pointing the finger:

‘But he has nothing on at all,’ said a little child at last. ‘Good heavens! listen to the voice of an innocent child,’ said the father, and one whispered to the other what the child had said. ‘But he has nothing on at all,’ cried at last the whole people.

 

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Necessary to the denigration of Corbyn’s leadership and prospects has been the dismissal – by now routine – of his supporters, those who would point the finger and say the emperor is stark bollock naked. In December Tom Watson referred to Momentum as ‘a bit of a rabble’, a precursor to his more recent intervention claiming entrism/entryism. In all likelihood, in December, there must still have been the expectation that Corbyn would, sooner or later, be forced to resign; the PLP veto would prove effective, and business as normal would happily resume. When that proved not to be the case, attacks on his supporters could only intensify. In particular, Margaret Beckett has spoken of ‘members of a fan club’; while, not to be outdone, John McTernan has offered ‘cult’ and ‘sect’.

Such attacks smack of desperation. The emperor in question, of course, isn’t any of the individuals named in the paragraph above, or even Tony Blair (who appears below), but a belief system, one based on a particular version of authority. The authority of the political class has been challenged; and the only response is a charge of abnormality. Andersen’s story makes the point well, since his child hasn’t been socialised into the need to defer to social power; they see differently. This version of childhood, moreover, is at odds with the one a contemporary society is more familiar with, one that underpins the attacks on Labour members. Here, Beckett et al draw on discourses of childhood/youth in which ‘innocence’ signifies weakness and the need for protection by adults whose own superior status depends on a dismissal of the not-yet-adult as somehow inferior, to be patronised. (Given that this is a power relationship, it matters little that it involves different age groups, of course.) However, there is a twist (albeit one with no arms involved): the trope doesn’t quite fit as comfortably as Corbyn’s critics would hope for.

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In July, as a leadership election became unavoidable, and Owen Smith was handed the seemingly thankless role of challenger, the unpopularity of so-called ‘extremist’ policies gave way to a renewed focus on the wrong kind of support. Smith, after all, has shamelessly adopted many Corbyn policies and has just had to insist he won’t drop them once he becomes leader. What happens under a Smith leadership between now and the next general election, whenever it takes place, of course, is open to conjecture. For the time being, it has become expedient to pay less attention to policies by focusing on personal qualities.

It has been said (so many times) that Labour couldn’t win an election by being ‘too left-wing’; the myth of ‘the longest suicide note in history’ lives on and, more than a year ago, when Corbyn’s leadership bid was still in its early stages, Tony Blair rejected ‘radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary’ (complementing his earlier criticism of Ed Miliband’s leadership ahead of the 2015 general election). What is undeniable, however, is that both candidates in the current leadership contest are promoting policies to the left of anything on offer previously. Perhaps, then, Corbyn can be defeated because of his dodgy supporters. Hence the talk of fan clubs and cults, a continuation of the theme that, as party members don’t know what it’s like to be an MP, professional politicians are grown-ups who do know the business and should be allowed to get on with the serious business of running the country.

To develop the point, one might recall Weber’s observation that modernity is characterised by bureaucracy and the management of affairs by professionals who owe their status to competence – all of which replaced, supposedly, an earlier (in the present context, one might add less mature) time when charisma had a role to play and leadership might be based on personal (even ‘supernatural’) qualities. Hence the narrative of infantilisation, one at odds with the Andersen story cited above: for the critics of Corbyn’s supporters, just as young children might believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, so do those who refuse to grow up and face ‘reality’ believe in Jeremy Corbyn.

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At such times – and Beckett and McTernan are by no means the only Labour figures to express themselves in this way – the speaker must necessarily belittle those they criticise in order to assert authority. Invariably polling is mentioned, if now ‘unelectability’ has less to do with policies than with personal qualities – although it must be impossible to say how far, at any given time, polls report reality (‘an anti‑Corbyn majority’) rather than constructing it. Nonetheless, Corbyn’s support within Labour continues to strengthen, whatever the electorate generally might or might not think. That Blair’s interventions – and those of so many others, granted media platforms at frequent intervals to warn of inevitable failure – have apparently had little effect on the party membership can only be explained by an irrational fixation on the part of Corbyn supporters. Told time and again that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, they refuse to give up on him.

Thus, when Watson spoke of ‘old hands twisting young arms’, he damned with faint praise those he considered too idealistic to resist manipulation, an attempt to divide Corbyn’s support; perhaps the intention was that younger supporters would become instantly suspicious of older supporters (in turn, the latter would become suspicious of the former as weak and untrustworthy because impressionable, and on and on). Similarly, to speak of ‘a fan club’ or ‘sect’ is to ask some to distance themselves from those others who are less serious. The individual who thinks I’m not like that is encouraged to look round and identify others who do fit the description. Whether or not this strategy (‘divide and conquer’) can succeed remains, of course, to be seen.

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Of more interest here is the way in which the language of fandom betrays a deep unease on the part of those who feel they are, or should be, in control. When Beckett referred to ‘a fan club’ she dismissed political engagement as no more substantial than attachment to a pop star. Using fan – an abbreviation of fanatic, with connotations of mental disorder and/or irrational behaviour – as a term of abuse, of course, both avoids engagement with the substance of the issue and also positions the speaker as someone with the authority to pass judgement. Fandom is a phase one should navigate on the way to being grown-up (here, listening to Blair; perhaps, if reluctantly, accepting his advice to ‘get a [heart] transplant’). Research into fandom has become prominent in the last two or three decades, and it is worth citing, as an early example, The Adoring Audience, where it becomes clear that a focus on audiences and group behaviour is inseparable from the need to allow those without a voice to speak.[1] In particular, the chapter by Joli Jensen remains a fine introduction to the topic and one can easily see how it might be applied to Labour’s ongoing struggles between PLP and membership.[2] Specifically, Jenson noted that ‘the concept of fan involves images of social and psychological pathology’ (9) and went on to describe the way mass society has been seen to lead to alienation and vulnerability; at fault, of course, are dysfunctional mass media and advertising weakening community relations. Thinking is replaced by an emotional attachment. There is ‘a smug superiority’ (25) on the part of those whose status allows them to judge (which surely sounds familiar to anyone keeping up with the pronouncements of anti‑Corbyn Labour).

The argument does begin to get complicated, however. The description provided by Jensen, of course, based on elite anxieties regarding the manipulation of the working class, has points of contact with, for example, FR Leavis’ disdain for mass culture, or Richard Hoggart’s rejection of American pop culture: this is a twentieth-century narrative that remains powerful because of the interests vested in it.[3] Leavis and Hoggart – and many others who might have been mentioned here – spoke of a lack of discrimination on the part of those who are easily manipulated by advertising or mass media. One might think it was now, well over 20 years after the publication of The Adoring Audience, acceptable to be a fan; but Zubermis and Larsen, for example, begin their study by acknowledging that there is still something shameful about fandom.[4] Undeniably so.

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As far as it goes, of course, this twentieth-century narrative is a little anachronistic. What must be considered is the way Corbyn has – cleverly? – been able to circumvent the traditional media, in the process no doubt offending those Westminster-based not‑journalists whose central role in day-to-day political discourse has been threatened. If his supporters insist on ignoring the wisdom of the Labour establishment, and remain immune to media bias, the ready availability of counternarratives is surely a factor. When Beckett speaks of fan clubs she taps into fears of dysfunctional media. This might well be the case, but the people in question – like Andersen’s child – are having none of it.

At the start of this week, Newsnight offered a discussion of anti-Corbyn media bias and this issue was raised.[5] Not least, the idea that online media sources might be taken as seriously as traditional print and broadcast media was greeted with some incredulity. However, what fandom research has shown is that audiences – those designated fans – are not incapable of rational judgement. To be a fan is to participate actively in the production of meaning; to be, in short, an expert. Perhaps those Labour members who will be allowed to contribute to policymaking under Corbyn – and, it seems, or so he claims, Smith – are the experts in question.

[1] The Adoring Audience, ed Lisa Lewis, 1992.

[2] Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterisation, in Lewis (ed), 9-29.

[3] Mass civilisation and minority culture, FR Leavis, 1930; and The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart, 1957.

[4] Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships, Lynn Zubermis and Katherine Larsen, 2012.

[5] Irony will always enjoy rude health when the BBC discusses political bias against Corbyn – on this occasion, all that was missing was Evan Davis chairing the discussion, but one can’t have everything. Update … and then, having drafted this article, and this footnote, I made the mistake of watching Tuesday’s episode of Newsnight, when Davis presided over the ludicrous #traingate piece. Yes OK – be careful what you wish for.

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On Sunday 25 October, at the Regent Street Cinema, a screening of Reds (1981; directed by Warren Beatty) was followed by an all-too-brief discussion with Trevor Griffiths (who wrote the original screenplay in the late-1970s). The audience for this event was respectable if hardly a sell‑out, even in the middle of London, which no doubt says something about something, and this was a shame: Reds has been a rare attempt to make an explicitly political film for a mass (‘Hollywood’) audience, and Griffiths, in discussion, commented on the difficulty of making a film about a communist ‘who was right’. He made no attempt to hide feelings of ambivalence: he discussed his (writer’s) admiration for the performances by Beatty and co-star Diane Keaton, for example, but there was also his awareness that the film could have been worse, balancing a sense of loss (it could have been better).[1] For those who haven’t seen it, Reds is about John Reed (Beatty), who wrote Ten Days That Shook The World, an account of the 1917 Russian Revolution; and central to the film is Reed’s relationship with Louise Bryant (Keaton). According to Griffiths, interviewed at the time, the prominence given this relationship, as the script was revised, ‘push[ed] he political life of the characters into the middle distance from the actions, which were human love and need as conventionalised romantically’;[2] and this conflict between a radical politics and how such ideas might be (re-)presented has been a feature of Griffiths’ work for stage, television and film. In Reds, then, there is a rom-com struggling to get out, as evidenced by the somewhat limited view offered of domesticity.[3] Further, the film frequently uses Bryant to position the viewer as distanced from Reed’s ‘obsession’ (as represented) with politics.

If this introduction has emphasised what one might be least content with, Reds remains, nonetheless, an intriguing experiment; this and other plays should be seen, less as ‘works of art’, and more as interventions that are open-ended. With this in mind, one might consider Reds, then, an intervention, in 2015, in the politics of now. However, it has to be said that Griffiths himself remains, if anything, under-appreciated: while his contemporary David Hare has a knighthood, for example, Griffiths, like Edward Bond, has been marginalised.[4] Bill Brand, which Griffiths wrote for ITV in the mid-1970s has only just been released on DVD; while Comedians, Country and Sons and Lovers, all of which Griffiths mentioned at Sunday’s discussion, can be found on YouTube.[5] For any writer, just the back catalogue cited here would be regarded as impressive; and it is a sobering thought that, currently, mainstream television is unlikely to offer anything comparable in the near (or even distant) future.[6] The discussion on Sunday ended somewhat abruptly as the next film’s start-time approached, which only made it more unfortunate that Reds started 15 minutes late; had it started on time, we might have heard more from Griffiths himself.

The film was first released just as Reagan was elected US president (he apparently liked the film); in this country its appearance in cinemas coincided with the Labour right’s hatchet-job on Tony Benn’s candidature for Labour’s deputy leadership; since when, of course, Labour has prioritised the approval of right-wing corporate media. At the Regent Street Cinema, there was time for only one question from the audience, an attempt to link the moment of Red’s making with what is happening now in Europe, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, as well Corbyn’s election as Labour leader here in Britain, although the speaker seemed to think the late-1970s was a markedly different time to today. Rather, it might be more fruitful to consider ways in which the times are similar. What the late-1970s (and Griffiths texts already mentioned) has in common with the current time, then, is a coherent challenge to the assumption that the Labour Party must ‘play the game’ and earn the approval of the right-wing establishment as represented by media and Conservative Party. Until Corbyn’s emergence as a popular leader, Benn’s challenge to Healey in 1981 was the last time Labour seriously addressed its role as a social-democratic party, as anything other than the least worst neoliberal option, a product carefully packaged for a voter‑consumer. If Country considers the post-1945 period, and the way ruling-class hegemony was maintained in an era of nationalisation, Bill Brand asks what happens when a principled socialist becomes a Labour MP and finds enemies on the Labour side as well as the Conservative side of the Commons. One doesn’t have to try hard to find the same debates being recycled in the autumn of 2015, when public ownership and the role of Labour in Parliament are again issues to the fore. Moreover, if those plays for British television provide a context for Reds, the most important parts of the film itself would appear to be what remain of debates on party organisation and the declared need to compromise: this is likely (some of) the material sacrificed to highlight the Reed-Bryant relationship, and one can imagine comparable sequences in films by Ken Loach, when political discussion goes on a lot longer than Beatty was prepared to allow, simply because the audience has been trusted to keep up. Similarly, the equivocations of the Labour right (where ‘ambition’ seldom extends beyond a desire to be nicer than the nasty party) can be put down to a fear, year after year, that people will, after all, respond to leftist arguments: many times in recent weeks and months, Corbyn’s leadership has been declared doomed on the basis of the 2015 general election and existing opinion polls, as though attitudes and beliefs never shift. The hope is that this view will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that, indeed, remains one possible outcome in 2020, if not before.

Towards the end of Reds there is a scene, in Moscow, between Jack Reed and Emma Goldman, the anarchist deported from the US earlier in the film: she highlights the Bolshevik betrayal of revolution, while he emphasises the messiness of political progress. Had there been time in the discussion on Sunday, it would have been interesting to ask Griffiths if (or ‘to what extent’) this scene summed up the conflict between him and Beatty as co-writers of the film: for a Hollywood studio (speaking for ‘the American public’) Goldman might be co-opted to condemn revolution, while Reed appears to echo Trotsky’s view that ‘we shall not enter the kingdom of socialism in white gloves on a polished floor’, not to mention the view of Griffiths himself as a writer trying to deal with Hollywood (which, in turn, echoes the difficulties faced by Brand as a socialist who refuses to hide or even modify his principles once he has become an MP). No one said it was going to be easy.

[1] This ambivalence can be found also in an interview conducted at the time: Mick Eaton, 1982. History to Hollywood: Interview with Trevor Griffiths. Screen, 23/2 (July-August), 61-70.

[2] Eaton, History to Hollywood, 63-64. See also: Ed Buscombe’s review, Making Love and Revolution, in the same issue of Screen, 71-75.

[3] Buscombe, Making Love and Revolution, 74.

[4] And don’t get me started on the treatment of Howard Barker!

[5] Spokesman Books has published much of Griffiths’ work, and their website contains links to review and interviews.

[6] This is to ignore American imports like The Wire or even The West Wing and The News Room, of course.

Since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as a serious candidate for the Labour leadership, media coverage has been governed by a politics of fear and the language of catastrophe. The Guardian’s recent ‘long read’ – long, perhaps, for any who have a limited attention span, admittedly the kind of reader the media usually prefer to contemplate – has described les événements as ‘an earthquake’ and ‘the political shock of a generation’; and this same newspaper had managed, earlier, to follow Corbyn’s successful debut at Prime Minister’s Questions with a note of caution, describing an ‘era of political disaggregation, [in which] Labour is fragmenting more than most’ – all before ending with the apocalypse, citing a ‘cabinet minister’ who spoke of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’. When Corbyn became party leader, government ministers lined up to mimic speak-your-weight machines, repeating word-for-word (one we prepared earlier) a message about the ‘threat to national security’. Within the Labour party itself, of course, there have been forecasts aplenty that this is the end, we’re all doomed (for Margaret Beckett, ‘the worst political mistake I have ever made’). However, anyone who does wish to be serious about Corbyn’s leadership will acknowledge that he and John McDonnell have simply moved the debate a little to the left. Even Lord Turnbull, a former Osborne supporter, now says the government’s economic policy has been politically motived (as 2015 winds down and the days get shorter, it hardly needs Yanis Varoufakis to make that particular claim). To defend the increasingly indefensible, then, the politics of fear risks risible melodrama, but that is the form it must take.

It should be of some interest that political discourse can only be presented as fear and melodrama. It is not simply a question of ‘biased reporting’ (evident though distortion and, often, blatant lies have been in most print and broadcast media output). Rather, the issue has become the way in which the speaker must affirm their allegiance to a norm, one that designates Corbyn as, not only marginal to the political consensus, but representative of the unsayable. One might refer to a dominant ideology or the Overton window and call this norm ‘neoliberalism’, which quickly becomes ‘common sense’ and must be defended with what might come across as religious zeal: Thatcher’s ‘no alternative’ 30+ years on. Not least, it is significant that popular support for Corbyn soon attracted the dismissive term Corbynmania, as though dismissing it as irrational was the only way to cope with the possibility that such a candidate might, just might have widespread support (and opinion polls must be spun to suggest that the opposite is the case). This New Statesman article, for example, describes the process in terms of some kind of psychological determinism: if the words ‘mob’ and ‘fanatic’ don’t appear, they can be easily inferred.

It is evident that Corbyn has ‘moved political debate leftwards’; but that form of words fails to fully capture the simple fact that the language of politics-as-is has become demonstrably inadequate. One might easily mock the government’s (or, perhaps, to be as precise as Downing Street would wish it, that should read the Conservative Party’s) rhetoric about national security; although it might not appear so amusing when a military coup scheduled for 2020 is taken into account. This is the politics of fear and nothing new, of course (how many times have the tabloid press so bravely exposed ‘the most dangerous man/woman in Britain’?); and it makes for a convenient tactic for those who wish to pre-empt discussion. However, any discussion of political discourse should go further to ask how language not only describes but also constructs consensus. To illustrate this point, consider France’s ‘Je suis Charlie’ phenomenon. Two recent books describe the aftermath to the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015, when there was a desperate need to produce and advertise a consensus on free speech and opposition to terrorism, even if it meant closing down discussion.[1] Given the hypocrisy involved, it was not just about ‘a defence of free speech’; and there was a perceived need to redefine French national identity in such a way that it precluded any questioning of ‘Je Suis Charlie’. The issue was reduced to a simplistic ‘with us or against us’ (as George Bush put it following the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001).

Melodramatic gibes and empty rhetoric about a threat to national security notwithstanding, none of this means that Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has become, somehow, the equivalent of a terrorist attack involving loss of life. Further, it is pretty obvious that ‘Je Suis Not Jeremy’ has proven less successful as a marketing campaign than ‘Je Suis Charlie’, even if the need for a disclaimer probably makes the point: the construction of these cases rests on an assumption that ‘we are at war’. Corbyn’s refusal to sing the national anthem becomes almost treasonable, even when that anthem can be so easily ridiculed and that story has been followed by one suggesting he would fail to kneel before the Queen when joining the Privy Council. However, the latter story might have no more substance than many that have been written about Corbyn. If French national identity is based on some kind of post-Revolution ‘equality and fraternity’, British national identity (still) includes a notion of politics-as-tradition; and so a fear that Corbyn and the so-called ‘new politics’ might be about to tear up the rule book is what generates this particular case of ‘with us or against us’.

The hysterical language of the so-called War on Terror can be adopted and adapted without ridicule and might pass without comment, so established is it as common sense. And so, by way of conclusion, it is worth thinking here about Thomas Pynchon’s take on the manufactured response to the attack on the World Trade Centre (aka ‘9/11’, nothing if not a branding exercise, arguably the reason why he refused to use that term in Bleeding Edge). In his 2003 Foreword to a new edition of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty‑Four, Pynchon addressed precisely this issue when he wrote of the modern surveillance state (part of what Foucault would call a disciplinary society) and ‘social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about’.[2] He is making a point that invokes the enforced conformity Delphy and Todd describe when they discuss ‘Je Suis Charlie’: the kind of totalitarian society that we might have in mind when we think of ‘quaint old … tyrants’ isn’t what we should expect to see today. If Conservatives do currently dream of ‘destroy[ing] the Labour brand’, their fantasy is given substance by the logic of advertising: the Labour Party could disappear as easily as did Woolworth’s if, indeed, it is no more than just another brand.

Nonsense about national security might be no more than we should expect from David Cameron; and talk about overthrowing an elected government might be no more than we should expect from Murdoch newspapers (quoting an ‘unnamed general’ who, like The Guardian’s cabinet minister, might or might not exist – the purpose of the story is to ‘get it out there’). The point is that the debate – instead of confronting head-on the supposed inadequacies of Corbyn’s politics, and his opponents cannot claim they haven’t been the time and space – must necessarily position the speaker in relation to politics-as-is, as though the alternative is a step into the abyss. It is problematic for the anti-Corbyn front (both within and without Labour) that he cannot be denied, as Thatcher might have put it, the oxygen of publicity. Both Corbyn and McDonnell as shadow chancellor have roles that mean they must be allowed a platform; and so the unsayable quickly becomes both sayable and, perhaps, common sense. If that isn’t enough to make voters fearful, something might well be happening.

[1] Christine Delphy, Separate and Dominate: Feminism and Racism after the War on Terror, Verso, 2015; Emmanuel Todd, Who is Charlie?, Polity Press, 2015.

[2] Thomas Pynchon, Foreword, in George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Plume Centennial Edition, 2003, xvi.

Currently the Labour party finds itself in what Jon Cruddas has called ‘the greatest crisis [it] has faced’ … epic in its scale’. In the recent election campaign Labour ‘play[ed] it safe’ by thinking it could ‘get over the line’ by not taking any risks (which probably means saying anything of substance). According to Will Straw Ed Miliband is ‘a decent and principled man … who never connected with the electorate’. One imagines he didn’t mean the electorate is not decent or principled. Straw does go on to point out that Labour’s middle-class vote was steady; it was working-class voters who were unpersuaded by Labour. Specifically, he refers to ‘the working-class voters, many of whom are highly aspirational, that we have lost in post-industrial areas’, before saying ‘we need more than a telegenic leader talking about aspiration’. So – to sum up, a failure to persuade traditional Labour supporters to vote for the party, perhaps because there seemed little to vote for; and then the word apparently on everyone’s lips at the moment, aspiration. A circle that needs squaring, but more of that later.

Meanwhile, with regard to the vote on 7 May, David Cameron is praised for his success in increasing the number of Conservative MPs, while media commentators also insist that politics is not what it was; there is a new game in town. However, if the latter is the case, then comparisons with what has gone before are problematic. If voting statistics have any validity (and any social science student should be able to drive a bus through the holes in that argument), an elementary reading might lead us to infer that the Conservatives, far from having a mandate to govern, let alone an overwhelming mandate, are only slightly less unpopular than Labour (if anything, Labour did win the contest to increase its popular vote and share of the vote). Given the role played by so-called small parties, this kind of number-crunching speculation could go on indefinitely; and so, predictably, sooner or later, proportional representation will have to be invoked as the dashing hero who will save us all. If we accept that there is a new game in town, we must focus on the inadequacies of first past the post, married to emergent regional features.

One common narrative, then, concerns Labour’s decline, over-shadowed by the SNP in Scotland, the UKIP in the north of England, the Conservatives in the south-east, and the Greens in Brighton. Funnily enough, there is greater reluctance to talk about the relentless decline of the Conservatives, which only remains an electoral force because, well, because: the Conservatives have become less popular over time and Labour has failed to replace them as a party of government on anything more than a temporary basis. One might argue that unpopularity works for the Conservative party since it depends on voter passivity. Labour, on the other hand, depends on voter activity (the problem then is that voter activity might mean raised expectations, something Labour is quite uncomfortable about). All of which suggests the game is anything but new in a class society that remains stubbornly resistant to change. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson wanted to make Labour the natural party of government; however, for whatever reason, before and since Wilson, Labour has only ever seemed to be a squatter awaiting eviction (as Cruddas might have put it, if we keep the noise down, perhaps the neighbours won’t call the police just yet).

In the 1930s, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England sought to explain the rise of Labour at the start of the twentieth century. In spite of a landslide victory in the 1906 election the Liberals, wrote Dangerfield, ‘[were] already doomed’ because of the rise of Labour (22), even as ‘those scandalous and impertinent revolutionaries’ quickly demonstrated there was nothing for respectable society to fear, ‘becom[ing] as time passed just a minor and far from militant act in the pantomime at Westminster’ (23). Dangerfield’s readers (the book was first published in 1935) would have had the Labour government of 1929-1931 in mind: since then, the party had split and ceased to be of relevance, or so it seemed, the failure of one alternative to the Conservatives followed by the failure of its replacement. Dangerfield has come to mind here because a recent article on Counterfire charts the decline of the party led until 8 May by Nick Clegg (not Dangerfield’s Liberal party, of course, although the mistake is often made). On Counterfire, Alistair Stephens describes ‘the second strange death of Liberalism’, evidently a reference to Dangerfield, although he focuses on the split in the Liberal party after 1916. As has just happened, the Liberals suffered then after an electoral coalition with the Conservatives, firstly in wartime, then in the 1918 election (although the 2010-2015 period has not been quite the same). According to Stephens, Clegg wanted to make the Liberal Democrats into a party of government, that is, trustworthy. Perhaps, another way of putting it, another media cliché, Clegg wanted to follow Blair in demonstrating that he has ‘a safe pair of hands’. But demonstrate to whom? The electorate? Parts of the electorate? Perhaps this is no more than the project of the company deciding to sponsor the arts or sport: get the brand in the public eye, get them used to seeing it in that context (a theatre, Lord’s cricket ground), become part of the furniture, not out of place. The more one thinks about it, then, far from a new game in town, the story is depressingly familiar.

If one does recall Wilson’s aim to establish Labour governments as more than a deviation from the Conservative norm, it is worth going back to David Coates’ article in New Left Review in 1996: just a few months before the election of a Blair government so desperate to prove it could be trusted with the economy it committed to Conservative spending plans (on Blairite gradualism after 1997 see Emmerson & Frayne’s 2005 Election Briefing for the IFS; or Coates’ chapter, The character of New Labour, in New Labour in Power, Coates & Lawlor eds, Manchester University Press, 2000). In 1997 Labour’s majority of 179 ‘apparently put them in the driving seat for electoral contests into the next century’ (Russell, New Labour and the electorate, in Coates & Lawlor, 16). However, this majority rested on tactical voting and was therefore somewhat brittle. One might infer an association between anti‑Conservative tactical voting and the Labour strategy of appealing to non‑traditional (that is, middle-class) support (25-29; see also Evans, Curtice & Norris, 1998). If the party does benefit from tactical voting by non-traditional voters they cannot do anything shocking, which might be said to make the exercise pretty pointless. If Labour is only ever prepared to play the nice version of the nasty party, is it surprising that voters of all persuasions remain unconvinced? In which case the failure is not one of radicalism.

Nonetheless, to date, the 2015 post-mortem has simply recycled the same old arguments about Labour’s need to be realistic and modernise; and so Peter Mandelson and David Miliband have been wheeled out to tell us Blair was right all along. Not mischievously rocking the boat, or settling scores, but simply telling us the truth. Labour is threatened by the UKIP in ‘its northern heartlands’ but that doesn’t mean some kind of social democracy; rather, they have to become the party of the aspirational. In Miliband’s words, Labour must ‘embrace a politics of aspiration and inclusion, a politics that defies some of the traditional labels that have dogged politics for so long’. However these ‘labels’ only apply to Labour politics, it seems. Clegg has been attacked for betraying his principles; but Labour is attacked for not being pragmatic and cynical, for not doing whatever needs to be done to get into office (if not, following Benn, into power).

So what does aspirational mean? A moment’s consideration should expose it as the kind of vacuous term likely preferred by those who fear the hard work involved in explaining anything. Would anyone admit to not being aspirational? Mandelson referred to ‘middle income earners’, while Tristram Hunt spoke of ‘the aspirational John Lewis couple’. So aspirational is code for those who want to think themselves middle class; but the term only makes sense if there are two clearly identifiable groups, each defined by their distance from the other, those who are aspirational and those who, one imagines, couldn’t care less.

Has Labour, then, become the party of those who couldn’t care less? Those who are apathetic, happy to wallow in non‑aspirational squalor? Well, yes – perhaps. For those on the right frequently invoke an underclass, a folk devil whose apathy and cynicism have exposed the inadequacies of a welfare state associated with Labour (more and more, Labour’s grasp of the kind of conviction politics that shapes the marketing of a Thatcher or Farage, say, is to claim ownership of a fetishised NHS). The underclass includes anyone working hard solely at auditioning for Shameless or Benefit Street; wherever they shop, it seems it isn’t at Waitrose. And this is not to forget the benefit tourists who flock here from all over the world to rip ‘us’ off.

This sponger element is a neoliberal fantasy, but one that has been allowed to pass for reality because Labour confirms it. Here we do come, finally, to what has emerged, since the 1980s, as the purpose of the Labour party: to make what Conservatives do seem reasonable. If Labour has failed to become the natural party of government, it still has an important ideological function in establishing neoliberal ideas as unavoidably, even painfully, normal. Just the way things are and the way things have to be. Since 2010 many Conservative reforms (if that word can be used) have been made a lot easier because the government was pushing at a door left open by Labour. Hence, the NHS and education have suffered from attacks on local authorities made acceptable by Labour before 2010. Similarly, the Blair government demonised welfare claimants, establishing the assumption that they have to be presumed guilty of cheating and must therefore prove their innocence. And so, if Conservative hegemony does rest on Labour acquiescence, a new game in town is certainly needed.

I confess that Scenes From An Execution has never been my favourite Barker play from the mid-1980s. I prefer The Castle, which John Calder published alongside Scenes in 1985; or, from a few years later, The Last Supper or Rome. In particular, The Castle – reminiscent of Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ as a take on militarism and the logic of an arms’ race – has always seemed to engage with contemporary politics more effectively than the post-Falklands/Malvinas Scenes, although both plays discuss the writing of history rather than taking it as a given. By way of contrast, another mid-1980s play, Edgar’s Maydays, staged at the Barbican by the Royal Shakespeare Company, perhaps exemplified what Barker called ‘a theatre of journalism’ (see ‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’ in Arguments for a Theatre, first edition, John Calder, 1989, 33; third edition, Manchester University Press, 1997, 36). Not least, plays like Scenes and The Castle were set against the kind of left realist theatre Barker had in mind when he started The Wrestling School and described a theatre of catastrophe. In Arguments for a Theatre, indeed, Barker distanced himself from ‘the liberal left who have, despite the apparently sweeping effects of political revolution, been left securely in office’ (‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’, first edition, 32; third edition, 34). Oppositional theatre could easily co-exist with Thatcherism and the assault on a political consensus that had existed since the 1940s.

All of which brings us back to Scenes From An Execution, which has just become the first Barker play staged by the National Theatre. In a radio interview Barker says the play was chosen because it is ‘conservative’; he goes on to say he is a writer of tragedy (the theatre of catastrophe) but Scenes is not a tragedy. One can even infer disappointment on his part that this is the play that marks his debut at the National, and perhaps even irritation at the kind of praise in reviews, where a narrative of acceptance is quite self-congratulatory. This is ‘one of Howard Barker’s most accessible and stringently witty works’ (The Independent); ‘probably Barker’s best known and most accessible piece’ (The Evening Standard); or ‘Barker’s most famous and accessible play’ (in this Guardian interview). One wonders how often such judgements are made by people with a working knowledge of Barker’s plays; and there might even be the assumption that an appearance at this particular theatre is what finally confirms the status of the play as, perhaps, a modern classic.

Hence, The Telegraph‘s somewhat Whiggish reading: ‘[H]is conclusion, that art which initially causes outrage is often eventually accepted into the canon of classics – and is somehow rendered safe in the process – strikes me as both true and wise.’ However, for The Guardian‘s reviewer, ‘this is a production that does rich justice to the play and makes nonsense of any suggestion that Barker, in having his work done at the National, has mirrored Galactia’s own absorption by the establishment’.

Here we should separate compromise of and by the writer/artist from the meanings that attach to acceptance, for Barker himself has said: ‘Scenes is the one they can get, so you might think they’d go “That was a success so we’ll go on to… what?” Because then the National has a problem.’ Implicitly, by selecting a play that stands outside the theatre of catastrophe, the National has confirmed its rejection of the bulk of Barker’s work. If so, it is quite understandable that The Telegraph, in the review already cited, cannot avoid sneering: ‘Unlike Barker, Galactia is imprisoned for her art, and one suspects Barker secretly envies his heroine for prompting the state into such drastic action when his own deliberately provocative work is often received with weary indifference.’ On the contrary, to return to ‘Radical Elitism in the Theatre’, one might conclude, rather, that it is the plays of ‘the liberal left’ that have always been received with ‘indifference’ precisely because they confirm the realist status quo.

To investigate further the National’s packaging of Barker and this play we might consider the production programme. Here, in a brief introductory essay, Barker scholar David Ian Rabey offers a clear statement of Barker’s methodology:

He invents forms and contexts of mythic history, diffuse and ambiguous. Since the early-1980s his plays avoid both contemporary settings and historically documented ‘facts’ (though they are often inspired by events or figures in European history) in order to release and entitle an imaginative speculation on what might happen (rather than on what did, or must.

This account should then take us to the play’s opening moments, Galactia discussing what happens when men die in a sea battle. Her first words: ‘Dead men float with their arses in the air. Hating the living they turn their buttocks up. I have this on authority.’ That is to say, this is a fact, I know what I have been told. Or even: one does not have direct access to the world, only through language and representation. On-stage, as she sketches, Carpeta stands in for the dead man, arse upwards. Later in the play Galactia says: ‘It is not important to witness things. I believe in observation, but to observation you must lend imagination.’ Here we might be reminded that Scenes began as a play for radio: in the theatre Galactia’s painting might conceivably be revealed to the audience, but the listener knows this knowledge is always and necessarily inaccessible, one is left with comments by characters in the play.

However, the programme, blissfully unaware of such considerations, follows Rabey’s piece with a bizarre article on women artists, as though Galactia (and Barker’s writing of her) must be placed in some kind of realistic historical context. There are then shorter articles on the Battle of Lepanto and the Doge of Venice: again, the assumption can only be that appreciation of the play will be heightened by such background knowledge … although there is nowhere any mention of the 1980s or the Falklands/Malvinas War.

In this second post discussing aspects of David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011), specifically his reference to Foucault’s work on genealogy as a way of reading Against the Day (AtD, 2006). I want to explore further what Cowart thinks AtD is ‘about’. In Chapter 7 (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’), we find, after Mendelson, a reference to ‘Pynchon’s encyclopedism’ (198). Cowart writes of Pynchon’s work generally: ‘Pynchon seduces the reader with the promise of something like the big picture: read this book and you’ll understand the age and its enormities.’ And then, a couple of pages later, this encyclopedism is related to Frye’s work on Menippean satire, ‘characterised, from antiquity into modern times, by its ungainliness, its voluminous, encyclopaedic ambitions, its scatology, its digressiveness, and its descents into the fantastic’ (200). Pynchon is here constructed as a writer whose narrative is discursive, availing itself of no end of connections; yet to suggest the reader might believe they will, or indeed ought to, ‘understand the age and its enormities’ is to invoke a very simplistic view of the transmission of knowledge. It is striking that this (modernist) line of inquiry remains blissfully unaware of Foucaultian genealogy. One might make the point that the perceived encyclopedism of Pynchon and others (as listed) is a way to resist closure (on ‘the labyrinth’ as a possible, Foucaultian, alternative to ‘the encyclopedia’ see Gerhard Hoffman, From Modernism to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction, 2005: 414ff).

 

To better understand Pynchon’s supposed encyclopedism in relation to Foucaultian genealogy, we might return to the essay quoted at the beginning of Chapter 6 (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984). Here, Foucault suggests that genealogy ‘must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality’ (Foucault, 76). This ‘monotonous finality’ would be the closure brought about by generalisation; hence, ‘the singularity of events’ must avoid the predictability that generalisation confers. Later, in deconstructing the quest for origins that conventional history is concerned with, Foucault insists that ‘[g]enealogy does not resemble the evolution of a species and does not map the destiny of a people’ (81). Cowart does not explore these arguments in relation to AtD, even though, in this chapter, he goes on to claim that ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist’ (Dark Passages, 164). Subsequently, there is an apparent confusion of form and content: ‘Against the Day sketches the genealogy of the world conflict that sets its stamp on the twentieth century’ (174), which recalls the suggestion that AtD be grouped with the first three novels in dealing with ‘the unfolding of the twentieth century’ (60). By implication, the novel itself, as written, is somehow separable from ‘the world conflict’ that provides subject matter. This might be what Cowart means by encyclopedism. However, it is not the genealogy that Foucault has outlined.

 

Cowart suggests that AtD belongs to ‘a neo-Continental or global period’ (59); and we might ask if this is an attempt to deconstruct the nation state (as suggested in Sascha Pöhlmann’s ‘Introduction: The Complex Text’ in Against the Grain: Reading Pynchon’s Counternarratives, Pöhlmann ed, 2010). Again, we never really find out, given the treatment of content and form. On 18 there is a reference to the novel’s ‘extraordinary geographical range’ and Pynchon’s ‘global perspective’; and then, on 173, he mentions the way Pynchon chose to introduce his novel (the jacket ‘blurb’ posted on Amazon.com in August 2006, some three months or so before the novel was published). This ‘witty description of the novel’ is used to bear out the view that ‘[t]he past actually mirrors the trajectory of the present’ (emphasis in the original). However, there is no attempt to follow up this particular construct as a way of addressing discourses of globalism, and this is what I would now like to do.

 

In August 2006, reading the Amazon.com blurb with nothing else to go on, it was striking to see how the narrative flowed, as the first paragraph, below, illustrates:

 

Spanning the period between the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 and the years just after World War I, Against the Day moves from the labour troubles in Colorado to turn-of-the-last-century New York to London and Gottingen, Venice and Vienna, the Balkans, Central Asia, Siberia at the time of the mysterious Tunguska event, Mexico during the revolution, postwar Paris, silent-era Hollywood, and one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all.

 

In a few lines we have chronology (‘the period between …’ etc); specific events (‘the Chicago’s World Fair …’ etc); as well as geographical locations. The listing of signifiers in this way – in itself a very Pynchonian construct – encourages the reader to ask how the narrative will link them.

 

Further, we should read the blurb in tandem with the novel extract published in Penguin’s catalogue (4-5, still available here). One can infer that publication of these two texts (unlike the Guardian’s publication of a version of Chapter 8 in November 2006) were sanctioned by Pynchon as a way of introducing the novel (if the strategy invokes the cinematic trailer, an alternative to the absent film it suggests, one has only to think ahead to the trailer produced, in 2009, for Inherent Vice). The extract is taken from Chapter 25, and features the meeting of Willis Turnstone and Jimmy Drop (309-310). Willis is ‘freshly credentialed from the American School of Osteopathy’ (309) and here confronted by Jimmy ‘in classic throwdown posture’ (310). Most obviously this scene articulates an uneasy relationship between tradition and modernisation, as signified by Willis’ ‘antiquated Colt, in whose use he was far from practiced’ (309). Yet one should also take into account that Willis, as an osteopath, is far from representative of an unproblematic modernisation or Weberian disenchantment (much later in the novel, on 996, he will introduce Frank to Zhao, the acupuncturist). Not least, juxtaposition of these texts draws on a macro-micro spatial metaphor: the blurb constructs a macro level, and begs the question as to how the narrative relationship between ‘events’ and ‘places’ is going to be written, not least with a final comment (‘one or two places not strictly speaking on the map at all’) that emphasises the writing of social reality. The Willis/Jimmy extract then offers a micro-level or interactionist alternative, one that, again, draws attention to the contested nature of any knowledge. We shall find this spatial metaphor challenged again and again throughout AtD.

David Cowart’s Thomas Pynchon & the Dark Passages of History (2011, details here) is made up of chapters published at different times, from the late-1970s to one (‘The Historiographer Historicized: Pynchon and Literary History’, 189ff, offered here as a conclusion of sorts) that has also been published, in a shorter version, in The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Dalsgaard, Herman & McHale eds, 2012). Dark Passages discusses all of Pynchon’s work but I shall confine myself to comments on Against the Day (AtD, 2006).

Chapter 6 (‘Pynchon, Genealogy, History’) begins by emphasising ‘the centrality of historical questions’ to Pynchon’s work (159), and Cowart here brings in Foucault. Indeed, the chapter heading echoes Foucault’s own ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (in The Foucault Reader: An Introduction to Foucault’s Thought, Paul Rabinow ed, 1984), an essay cited when Cowart refers to Foucault’s use of genealogy as a kind of historiography: ‘gray, meticulous and patiently documentary’ (160). Previously Cowart has focused his attention on the content of Pynchon’s novels, hence the importance accorded German culture in Chapter 3 (57ff). Now, to put it in perhaps simplistic terms, he addresses form to describe the work of genealogy: ‘the genealogist-historian lays bare the play of power that so swiftly seeks to disguise its workings’ (160). Hence, ‘readers who find the overall point of Against the Day elusive’ might still ‘recognise the technique as that of the genealogist’ (160); and then, a few pages on, ‘Pynchon … aspires to the calling of fictive genealogist, the most historically meticulous of storytellers’ (164). But what does this mean? Cowart has already concluded the reference to Foucault’s work by suggesting that Pynchon, the novelist, might be better at ‘imagining a world in which various oppressive forces can be countered, dismantled, resisted’ (161); and one might ask if this is what Pynchon, indeed, is – and always has been – about. Nonetheless, for Cowart, the novelist enjoys a licence denied the historian/genealogist (ie Foucault); and so ‘what hybridizes Pynchon’s work is his contempt for objective distance, his passion for justice-based chronicle’ (165). It is the ‘justice-based chronicle’ – ‘Pynchon insists on writing the history of the marginalized or, as he calls them, the preterite’ – that gives the novelist an advantage here.

With regard to AtD Cowart now goes on to refer to Scarsdale Vibe’s lengthy speech, the ‘orgy of self-congratulation’ (168) that opens Chapter 67 in AtD. He concludes that ‘the author makes his political views clear, but such extravagance is balanced and framed by incremental intimations of other ideas the more powerful for their oblique presentation’ (169). Here we see, juxtaposed, the real beliefs of the text’s author – which pre-exist the text but shape the writing of character (‘Pynchon makes no effort to temper the expression of his disgust’) – and ‘other ideas’, the ‘oblique presentation’ of which will emphasise the role of the canny reader in deciphering the text: one must ‘peel the onion of appearances’ (169). Do these ‘other ideas’ also belong to the author? Presumably so, but Cowart appears to distinguish between the mere content of Vibe’s speech and another kind of expression: the example he gives is AtD’s use of ‘artful indirection’ in the writing of World War I (170), eg Franz Ferdinand’s visit to the United States rather than his assassination (171, followed on 173 by War references that ‘do not gather to a narrative climax’ but ‘fall as solitary pebbles in history’s great, echoing bucket’). Given the way Cowart moves rapidly from Vibe’s speech to a consideration of the writing of War, we might ask if, indeed, we are expected to conclude that ‘artful indirection’ is absent from the passage that features Vibe’s speech.

At the start of Chapter 67 (AtD, 1000-1001) Vibe addresses a like-minded audience (the L.A.H.D.I.D.A.) of rich white men. On 1000 the narrative indicates (‘Scarsdale well into what by now was his customary stem-winder’) that some at least will have heard it all before: hence ‘the expected arm gesture’. The speech is a performance, a rehearsal of agreement; however, on 1001 it ends with Vibe betraying the distance between him and Foley Walker. Vibe speaks generally of those ‘whose future … was always to toil for us’ and then avoids eye-contact with Walker. The latter (‘attentive back in the shadows’) might now be aligned with the ‘observer’ of the opening paragraph on 1000, implicitly an outsider called upon to interpret what he sees, an outsider with whom the reader might be positioned. If we read the speech as no more than the author’s heavy-handed signposting of political views we miss the substance. On these two pages, then, the speech constructs the general while the narrative disrupts that overview with the writing of agency (a feature of the text that I shall discuss in my next post). If nothing else we might also recall the times when AtD offers that kind of political statement, or history lesson, as a speech delivered by a character: as examples, consider the narrative function of speeches by the Cohen (230-231), Ratty (808-809 and 937-938) and Danilo (828).

What Foucault calls effective history ‘deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations’ (‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,’ 88). One can indeed see here the strategy adopted by AtD, where the content of the Vibe speech (and the others indicated above) is challenged in the writing; and one would have liked more than the brief references to Foucault that do appear in Dark Passages (Foucault does not feature at all in Chapter 5, ‘The Luddite Vision: Mason & Dixon’, originally published in 1999; and should also be considered influential in the writing of Vineland and Slow Learner).

Which is not to say that Pynchon has been directly influenced; it would matter little if he announced he had never heard of Foucault, let alone read his work. Concluding his discussion of V, Cowart offers Pynchon as ‘one of [the] most important harbingers’ of  Said’s postcolonialism and White’s postmodern historiography (56), intellectual developments he associates with the 1970s, although that should not lead us to suppose that Said and White have been directly influenced by their reading of Pynchon. Elsewhere, Cowart relates Pynchon’s work to the history of criticism, specifically Watt (23) and Frye (200) in the 1950s; and White is also discussed in relation to Frye (45). In such passages Dark Passages starts to outline the manner in which the Pynchon-text emerged (and has continued to re-emerge). However, given the genesis of the book over more than 30 years, it is not surprising that there are two brief references to Shawn Smith’s Pynchon and History: Metahistorical Rhetoric and Postmodern Narrative Form in the Novels of Thomas Pynchon (2005); and no references to Amy J Elias’ description of a metahistorical romance in Sublime Desire: History and Post-1960s Fiction (2001), even though Cowart does mention the challenge postmodernism poses to historical fiction (161-162, with implicitly a reference to the effective history outlined by Foucault).