The Oxonian Review Thu, 21 May 2015 09:06:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Into the Madding Country Thu, 21 May 2015 09:04:56 +0000 Alexis Brown


Far From the Madding Crowd
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
UK, 2015

Thomas Hardy didn’t choose his names by accident. He took the title for his fourth novel from Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’:

Far From the madding crowd’s ignoble strife
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way. (73-76)

As Lucasta Miller has noted, Hardy’s reference ironizes the idyllic English countryside, as he thrusts a dark undertow of violence and desire beneath its docile landscape. In a similar stroke of irony, his “Bathsheba” (Carey Mulligan) is no biblical pawn, but a woman intent on making her own way in the world, hoping to “astonish,” she says, us all. And she does. Far From the Madding Crowd follows Bathsheba as she transforms from an orphan under the guardianship of an aunt to the mistress of her own successful farm, inherited from a recently deceased uncle. At the centre of her story are three suitors, the first of whom is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoernaerts), an aspiring farmer. The film opens not long before his rather inelegant proposal, in which he promises her a piano (every eligible young woman, it seems, is in desperate need of a piano). Her refusal on the grounds that he could never tame her—and would despise her for it—proves fortunate, as the next day, Gabriel’s sheep dog mistakenly drives his herd over the edge a cliff, destroying the farm that would have been theirs and plunging Gabriel into poverty.

And this is only the beginning of Bathsheba’s romantic (mis)adventures. It is a story that has been ranged over by several adaptations—most famously by John Schlesinger in 1967—but Thomas Vinterberg takes a refreshing look at Hardy’s novel, offering us a sharp and stylish retelling of a classic love story. His main strength is Carey Mulligan. Every twitch in Mulligan’s eyes unpicks her various suitors; the slightest curve in her lip connotes their success or—more frequently—their failure. Here is a woman who knows not only her mind, but also her power—and who, better yet, refuses to shrink away from either. And this is perhaps why Mulligan was a bit miscast as the whimsical, child-like Daisy in Baz Lurhman’s The Great Gatsby (2013), and why, for this same reason, she outstrips Julie Christie’s 1967 Bathsheba, despite Christie’s elegant (if unsubtle) performance: Mulligan’s every look is so intelligent, so carefully discerning, that the viewer often wonders why Bathsheba would ever seriously consider these men at all. Her next suitor, the wealthy William Boldwood, (in a wonderfully restrained performance by Martin Sheen) fares no better. He offers her a house; she, unfortunately for him, tells him that she already has one.

But what is it about a certain breed of arrogant, selfish men that can make even the most intelligent women simper? Enter Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), the charming, morally bankrupt man who finally succeeds in seducing Bathsheba into marriage. The scene of this seduction takes place in a hollow in the ferns, as Troy performs a breath-taking sword trick, slicing the air around Bathsheba before taking off a lock of her hair. Unlike the equally brilliant 1967 scene, in which the camera ranges along a hillside as it follows Troy’s repeated mock-charges, here the camera stays remarkably contained. Poised at eye-level between the two, almost entirely in close-up, it mediates their encounter with striking intimacy, making their final kiss all the more explosive. And here Vinterberg offers a modern flourish—the kiss comes accompanied by a surprisingly un-English hand between her legs (what the actors apparently called a ‘Danish handshake’), a move that Vinterberg hoped would demonstrate the sexual awakening that so changes Bathsheba for the film’s remainder. Where other men offer her mere possessions, Troy offers her a more visceral, violent kind of power. His is a naked ambition that resonates with her own.

Yet it is an ambition swathed in the security of her distinctly middleclass, and then upper-middle class standing. The film does well in further underscoring how Bathsheba’s sparky independence is entirely a function of her social position. In one instance, after describing why she first chose not to marry Gabriel, her servant retorts, “What a luxury—to be able to choose.” It is a subtle admonition to which Bathsheba has no answer, as indeed, she has already answered her several suitors’ offers by claiming she already has a piano, and a house, and therefore no need for a husband. These remarks, if admirable, nonetheless beg the question of whether she would still refuse them if this were not the case.

Looming ever present are the magisterial hills and the windswept knots of wild grass and hay rolling over the Dorset landscape. It is a backdrop that suggests, as does the film’s ostensibly happy ending, that all is well in “the cool sequester’d vale” of Gray’s poem, and that the “noiseless tenor” of these characters’ lives has been restored. And yet what stays with me most is the image of sheep after sheep tumbling in a senseless repetition off the edge of a jagged cliff, spelling Gabriel’s certain disaster. Their screams punctuate the otherwise eerily calm setting in a way that shows the sheer capriciousness of fate at the heart of this story, in its utter indifference to our own whims and desires. To hear those screams here embodied, aural, and so much more immediate makes Bathsheba’s desperate will towards self-determination all the more urgent, and all the more sad.

Alexis Brown is a second year DPhil Candidate at Wolfson College. Her dissertation, focusing on literary biopics, is supported by the Rhodes Trust and an Oxford Centre for Life-Writing Doctoral Scholarship.

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Daredevil Tue, 19 May 2015 09:21:36 +0000 Dominic Davies

Writ. Drew Goddard
Exec. Prod. Steven S. DeKnight
Marvel Television, ABC Studios DeKnight Prods and Goddard Textiles
Released on Netflix 10 April 2015

In the past few years, Hollywood has vomited Marvel films: The Incredible Hulk, the Iron Man trilogy, the Captain America films, the Thor and X-Men series, Guardians of the Galaxy, and most recently, the new Avengers movies. The “superhero” formula fulfils a number of the industry’s somehow increasingly monotonous criteria: big explosions, endless and increasingly complex CGI action sequences, perilous attempts to destroy the earth (though really just Manhattan), love stories that mostly disempower women and remain redundant subplots, and countless cringe-worthy, one-liner puns uttered by heroes mid-fight. However, these films have been some of the highest grossing productions of recent years and the formula appears to work. Mining the Marvel franchise further guarantees Hollywood masses of accompanying merchandise and innumerable sequels, all of which add to the profits. In turn, and as Dan Hassler-Forest has shown in his book-length study, Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (2012), they propagate a twenty-first century neoliberal ideology, encouraging viewers to “sympathise with powerful but all-too-human billionaires.” The portrayal of multi-millionaires such as Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man), with their determination to save rather than profit from mankind, serves to “legitimise the power of the Berlusconis and Rupert Murdochs of the world.” Simplistically and unoriginally put, Hollywood both feeds and feeds off the capitalist world-system as its primary superstructural producer.

What is more, these films overlook the often insightful social commentary that informs the original Marvel comics, whilst exacerbating their most proto-capitalist aspects. They exchange the rough-edged predicaments of their dark and morally nuanced storylines for brightly coloured costumes and the above-mentioned simplistic formulae. Capitalism sees profits in Marvel’s numerous artistic and narrative productions of the late-twentieth century and plunders them, cleverly dissolving the often implicit social and political critiques they contain to serve its own ideological ends. Perhaps the exception to the rule was the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen (originally produced not by Marvel but DC Comics), which retained these deeper thematic explorations and that actually concluded with the nuclear annihilation of New York. The film version of Daredevil, released back in 2003 and starring Ben Affleck as its superhero protagonist, perhaps dodged the ridiculous standardisation to which Marvel films have since fallen victim, but it nevertheless pre-empted some of these familiar criteria.

However, the new television series of Daredevil, released in its entirety (13 hour-long episodes) on Netflix a little over a month ago, rejects Hollywood’s framework outright, resulting instead in a carefully orchestrated interrogation of some of capitalism’s most voracious aspects. It critiques capitalism’s rampant urban development by documenting the visceral and unglamorous violence that accompanies these processes (and resistance to them), at times questioning the whole notion of “the superhero” altogether. The result is a programme that is of a par with those other gems of the “boxset” genre, such as HBO’s The Wire or Mad Men, and that other excellent series to be released on Netflix all in one go, House of Cards. The politics implicit in these shows are nuanced, carefully developed and refreshingly explorative. That this new television series of Daredevil throws the caricatured simplification of its filmic counterparts into relief is perhaps, then, enabled primarily by the genre. The destruction of the world—the kind of disaster mentality that has gone hand-in-hand with the neoliberal age, as Naomi Klein and many others have shown—does not have to be posited and overcome in the space of a 120 minute movie. Rather, the day-to-day local violence of capitalism can be represented at a more even pace, and the lower budgets of these productions mean that CGI and the inevitable ongoing actions sequences that it allows are forced to take a backseat. Indeed, as film critic Jason Wilson has pointed out, a number of actors are now taking roles in trashy action and romance flicks in order to fund their more creative roles in these longer, lower-budget series: Hollywood veterans Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell have, for example, recently been given key roles in the forthcoming second series of the terrific HBO series True Detective.

Daredevil’s overarching plot revolves around the ascendency of the wealthy proto-capitalist Wilson Fisk, immediately subverting the narrative trajectories of Batman and Ironman as critiqued by Hassler-Forest. It charts Fisk’s determination to monopolise on New York’s urban gentrification, as he attempts to infiltrate one of its remaining undeveloped corners, Hell’s Kitchen. He seeks to achieve his profit-yielding enterprise by engaging in underhand dealings with heroin-peddling gangs and corrupt finance capitalists alike, a project that runs counter to his public image as a benevolent figure seeking to improve living standards for the city’s working class. Only Matt Murdock/Daredevil, a non-profit lawyer by day and crime-fighter by night, sees through his progressive rhetoric, and sets about sabotaging Fisk’s ruthless redevelopment projects, both legally and physically. By viewing Fisk’s violence from the perspective of Murdock, the series asks its audience to think seriously about the ethics of the uneven and increasingly unequal urban development that is happening all around them. That Daredevil’s “superhero” powers stem from the fact that he is blind, and has thus developed other heightened senses to defeat his opponents (such as his hearing and touch), again points to the whole series’ thematic engagement with the reconceptualisation, if not re-viewing, of the sociopolitical commentary that remains overlooked in other screen adaptations of the Marvel franchise.

This is just one of Daredevil’s brilliant alignments of a “superhero” aesthetics with an anti-capitalist politics, and the series is loaded with a set of powerful symbolic and thematic tropes that weave together into a complex narrative. Though the second series has yet to be confirmed, viewers should hope that the rich artistic potential of Marvel comics continues to be realised in this way, if only to counterbalance the continuing onslaught of the several more Hollywood-Marvel film adaptations that are already due to be released in the coming year.

Dominic Davies has just completed his DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

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Weekly Round-Up: Female Philosophers, Coetzee’s Diaries, T.S. Eliot, The History of Capitalism, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Sun, 17 May 2015 11:56:03 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Susan Price: ‘Reviving the Female Canon’, The Atlantic: Philosophy has a woman problem: in The Norton Introduction to Philosophy, which claims to summarise 2,400 years of philosophy, the first female philosopher appears in the mid-twentieth century. In this essay Susan Price looks those 17th century women philosophers whose work has been neglected. Project Vox, a group based at Duke University, has been launched to give academics and students a chance to study and promote the work of these long-neglected female philosophers.

2. Thomas Meaney: ‘Short Cuts’, The London Review of Books: Thomas Meaney makes his way through J.M. Coetzee’s diaries. “17 July 87. Before embarking on physical description of beautiful women, reread and consider the passage in Barthes’s S/Z in which he characterises the attempt to ‘totalise’.”

3. Jeremy Adelman: ‘What Caused Capitalism?’, Foreign Affairs: Jeremy Adelman navigates the long road to capitalism in light of recent books by Beckert, Mokyr, and The Cambridge History of Capitalism. “The isms of the West,” Adelman concludes, “are neither as inevitable nor as durable as their chroniclers or critics believe.”

4. William H. Pritchard: ‘The Prose Eliot’, The Hudson Review: William H. Pritchard writes about reading the two volumes of the complete prose of T.S. Eliot. ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published 100 years ago, but it is not only his poetry, but also his criticism and philosophy that make Eliot a great author.

5. Cristina Nehring: ‘‘Romantic Outlaws,’ About the Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley’, The New York Times: Cristina Nehring reviews Charlotte Gordon’s new book: Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Daughter Mary Shelley. Few mother-daughter pairs are as extraordinary, talented, revolutionary, and enduring as the two Marys. “The point […] is not simply to swagger with revolutionary zeal but to hold ourselves to a kinder, gentler, higher standard. In private and public life, revolutionaries aren’t saints; those who depose rusty crowns should take care to replace them with jewels, not thorns.”

If you would like to suggest a link, please email Kristin Grogan

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A Kind of Blindness: Jennifer Egan at the Rothermere American Institute Thu, 14 May 2015 08:25:28 +0000 April Pierce

“How can you write a book if you have no idea what you’re doing?” Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was addressing a large audience at the Rothermere American Institute last week. This was Egan’s first visit to Oxford – part of a two-day programme entitled “Experimental Fiction: Confessions of a Reluctant Practitioner.” “My answer is: I can only write a book if I have that little of an idea about what I’m doing … What I’m trying to achieve here is a kind of blindness.”

It is a rare thing to encounter forthright confessions of this genre in a setting so far removed from the pub. Refreshingly candid, Egan focused her talk, and the discussion following, on the practice, process, and anxieties surrounding experimental fiction. The discussions were wide-ranging, touching on global politics, technological developments and their implications for fiction, credit card fraud (“I have been robbed so many times and so many ways in my life that I must be clearly identifiable as an absolute sucker”), and what constitutes a believable storyline (“one sign that a character is going to be problematic is that I don’t know what to name them”).

As a lifelong autodidact, Egan’s personal trajectory was nontraditional. “The way in which I feel most American is in my concern for self-reinvention,” she said, “I’m not really interested in fulfilling expectations.” At a young age, she was drawn to anatomy and medicine – “ghoulish to the point of wanting to dig up dead bodies in the cemetery.” She then moved on to study archeology, but the research was “too hot,” and she wasn’t allowed to dig as often and as deeply as she had initially wanted. Today, Egan still finds inspiration for her stories in unlikely places – from observing the obsessions of her children (Dungeons and Dragons, sports statistics), to emergent forms of media (Twitter, Powerpoint). Had she considered using periscope – taking one story, for instance, and projecting it into a completely different locale? She hadn’t, but she liked the idea.

Conceived in an “absolute mess,” Egan’s work responds to her own intuitive metric system. “The best stuff I can come up with is the stuff I could not have thought of consciously,” she admitted. She looks for indirect storytelling that is “interior and strange.” How does she gauge success? Freshness. What does she think is the virtue of fiction? Pleasure. Though her depiction of methodological approaches sounded somewhat helter-skelter, her writing also undergoes a painstaking, “almost endless” period of revision. After indulging the shadowy underworld of her mind, she creates outlines of up to eighty pages (single spaced, ten point font) to “make sense” of the unconscious fluctuations. Her novel Look at Me underwent as many as seventy drafts. She writes by hand. “I’m open to every possible way of telling a story, and I’m not worried about fitting into a category,” Egan explained. “The novel is … an elastic form. Its mandate is to tell stories in a way that they haven’t been told.”

As with her writing process, so too with her reading process – Egan described the reading which informs her own work as varied and open to caprice (“I read for fun … I once read Proust in a book group, if you can imagine. It took us six years, and we had five children between us … I was also watching The Sopranos at the time, and these two influences worked together … I liked the idea of the concept album. Eminem’s concept album was good”). She spoke of contemporary heroes: Don DeLillo, Rick Moody, Lydia Davis, but here too she related how “appetite leads the way with my reading.”

Though a significant portion of her talk, and the ensuing conversations, focused on Egan’s particular writing methods, she also addressed broader concerns facing American literature. Why did serialization die in fiction when it is alive and well in the realm of television? This remained an open question. Is her work symbolic of a new post-ironic moment in American writing? “I do love irony, but not as a resting point. What’s leading, in irony, is primarily critical, not human.” Addressing the “fear of the future of the novel” which is worrying literary circles in the United States, Egan argued “I believe that whether or not people continue to read novels is up to us, the novelists. As a middle-aged crank I am definitely threatened by [new media] … But as a writer, I feel very differently.”


Read more about Jennifer Egan here.

Read more about the Rothermere American Institute here.


April Elisabeth Pierce is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St. Anne’s College.

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Falling for a Dream Tue, 12 May 2015 07:56:49 +0000 Alexandra Greenfield

It is hard to describe the feeling experienced when watching Carol Morley’s latest cinematic offering, The Falling. At once hypnotic in its effect, this film entices the spectator with a world so tangible it does, at times, feel as if one has quite literally fallen through the screen into this strange yet familiar world. Hints of the supernatural bubble under the surface in this tale of misplaced sexual desire, the sensuous cinematography at times suggesting a world beyond our grasp, while simultaneously rooting the spectator in the gritty realties of the late 1960s.

It is this quality which makes Morley’s film such a delight to watch. Opening with idyllic shots of a picturesque English lake landscape in Autumn, the spectator is then assaulted with a barrage of images, indistinguishable from one another, throwing them back into a concrete world of chain smoking, short skirts, and defiant sexual encounters. This, combined with a tantalising soundscape, which causes the images to sizzle like the headteacher’s ever present cigarette, makes this film an explosively textile experience. The images tease us with their tactility and one can almost feel the shared breath of the protagonists as they lie entwined upon a bed, the heat of their flushed cheeks escaping far beyond the confines of the screen.

The story follows a group of students in an all-girls school in England in 1969. Maisie Williams excellently conveys the sense of defiant teenage frustration which fuels her character, Lydia ‘Lamb’ Lamont, a sixteen-year-old girl negotiating a complex changing relationship with her best friend Abby, played by Florence Pugh. After the death of Abby, there ensues an epidemic of hysterical fainting at the school, with the girls displaying the same ecstatic symptoms expressed by the more sexually experienced Abby just before her death. Cue scenes of girls dancing themselves into a faint, while the exasperated teachers, played brilliantly by Monica Dolan and Greta Scacchi, struggle in vain to contain this unexplained outbreak of hysteria.

While Williams and Pugh make a dynamic couple, and imbue the film with an expressive vitality, it is the older, supporting cast that makes this film so very watchable. Scacchi brings a certain poignancy to her portrayal of the authoritarian Miss Mantel, offering only hints at some unnamed event which has forced her into this position. Her brief moments of tenderness, captured beautifully by the highly exploratory camera, are some of the most moving in the whole film. Maxine Peake, excellent as always, brings just the right about of fragility and bitterness to her part, playing Lydia’s distant mother with troubling sincerity.

The joy of this film is the manner in which Morley plays with ambiguity. Just enough is given that we are captured by the story, yet throughout the offbeat rhythmic styling of the film keeps the spectator on their toes, always one step ahead, preventing us from ever really knowing quite what is happening, or why. Indeed, the main flaw in the film is the ending, which seeks to tie up, just a little bit too neatly, some of the ends which have come loose during the film. This brief foray into the melodramatic certainly does not diminish the film’s potency, but it adds little to what was already an extremely satisfactory conclusion.

The Falling cements Morley’s position as one of the most exciting British film directors working today. Following on from her 2011 documentary Dreams of a Life, this film confirms Morley’s ability to articulate a challenging story through that wonderfully cinematic combination of sincerity and magic. The Falling is a film worth savouring; a tantalising taster of cinematic potential.

Alexandra Greenfield is reading for a Master of Studies in Film Aesthetics at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

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On the Campaign Trail Sun, 10 May 2015 23:14:21 +0000 Amy Clarke

This piece was written ahead of last Thursday’s General Election.

A Shared Goal

Early evening in a South Bermondsey cul-de-sac, two small brothers—identical in all but height and shoulder breadth—yell back through the dark corridor to their mother. Sidling heavily out of the back room, their mother approaches, prompting me to conclude, in the dimness, that she is disabled or partially immobilised by illness. It seems clear that the bigger of the brothers is old enough to answer the door, but too young to ask a strange adult calling at an inconvenient moment to come back another time, or to explain that mum is unwell and indisposed. It is not until she reaches the doorstep and the half-light of the Spring evening in which I’m standing that her vast and protruding belly, housing what I deduce will be the next pea from this pod, reveals itself.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, pre-empting me as exactly that phrase forms on my lips, “I’m about three hours into my contractions.” Glancing at my sticker and finding the joke from the depths of her discomfort, she continues, “a different kind of Labour, I guess…”

Later, between canvassing sessions, we sit in Dun’s greasy spoon in Bermondsey, selecting our preferred variations on a bacon-sandwich theme and swapping stories from the morning or a weekday evening on the stump. Tomato ketchup is passed between tables, chairs with metal legs scrape against the floor, and Mr Dun—head chef and, as far as we can tell, politically impartial owner—watches us tuck into his grub, our leaflets and badges to one side. His silence on political alignment indicates business expediency, I think: he has ten to fifteen Labour punters all but guaranteed every Saturday lunchtime, and I’m sure the Liberal Democrats appreciate a bacon-sarnie on occasion, too. Mr Dun, local institution that he is, occasionally harangues one of the Labour councillors during a Saturday visit to come and have a look at a problem drain in the yard out back, or to see the workshop he has built for some of Bermondsey’s 16-year-old catering apprentices. Other than that, we’re left to our own devices.

The doorstep and the café have become microcosms of my campaigning. Despite the sense of intrusion, every encounter offers you a glimpse into the lives of your community. The whole world is brought to you on the campaign trail, no matter which party you’re stumping for, no matter which constituency. And every encounter is a reminder of the matters that any election is fought over. In this election, more than ever, the Health Service is an issue that could win or lose the vote. As I offered my help to the expectant mother, she calmly reassured me that, third time round, she knew that there was no rush to get to St Guy’s Hospital where her sons had been born and where the midwives knew her by name. Here, the Health Service—and every other key issue—becomes more than policy or manifesto promise. Through the outdoor balconies of grey apartment blocks, the red-bricked cul-de-sacs, the gated communities, the sheltered housing, the Victorian terraced houses, lives lived no distance from your own, although metaphorically a million miles away, greet the campaigner. You meet people who love what you stand for, and those who hate it.


The Stickiness of an Incumbent

I have been part of the community of Labour Party campaigners in Bermondsey since August last year, when I moved back to London after five years in Washington D.C. Any such community, comprised of volunteers, must gather around some shared goal: a nebulous future (church groups envisioning heaven), the continuation of an institution (royalists awaiting a new baby), or a social change for the better (campaigners hoping for an election win). Bermondsey’s Labour Party campaigners are no different. Whether right or not to be expending energy on the election, and on behalf of Labour, a win for Neil Coyle on 7 May is a shared goal among us: an imagined future.

“Find me one English owner of a cafe on the Old Kent Road and I’ll vote for you,” challenges Mr Gallagher, a resident on another new-build cul-de-sac in the northern part of the constituency, standing erect beside the open door of his Ford Focus and directing his tirade at the group of Labour Party councillors and volunteers gathered around their clipboards, marking off Labour incliners among his neighbours. “You can’t though, can you? They’re all immigrants, setting up shop and taking over our businesses.” Campaigning, especially in a swing ward in a swing constituency, makes meeting hostility inevitable—and, to some degree, welcome. In other countries political dispute is suppressed, or settled with the gun. “Of course I don’t vote!” Mr Gallagher declares, “all politicians are self-serving wankers!” He is unaware of, or unabashed by, the tautology, as a couple of recently elected councillors—hoping his generalisation is confined to the national rather than local stage—brace themselves to engage.

Mr Gallagher lives in this, one of the country’s most marginal Liberal Democrat seats: Bermondsey and Old Southwark, in south London. Fed up with the canvassers, and the politicians they represent, a strong protest vote is expected on 7 May. However, not all residents in the constituency are quite this disillusioned. Most of Bermondsey’s voters are deciding whether to return to their core Labour tendencies, after thirty-plus years of supporting the incumbent Liberal Democrat MP, or to stick to the incumbent for no other reason than that they know and like him. Since 1983, the incumbent has been a spectacularly successful local MP–with almost every resident one meets on the doorstep reporting that he has at some point done a “personal favour” for the family. His longstanding and close adherence to local issues—tracking down missing children, celebrating retiring vicars, saving post offices, championing Millwall Football Club’s progress—has been highly effective, a Labour volunteer would say, in disguising his Westminster voting record.

So the Labour team is knocking on doors, day in, day out, at weekends, in evenings, on bank holidays. With money piling into the constituency from Labour Party central, with celebrities (Eddie Izzard, Steve Cogan, Jo Brand) campaigning hand-in-hand with the Labour candidate, and with senior Labour politicians (Harriet Harman, Rachel Reeves, Chukka Umuna, Sadiq Khan) out on the stump, this is a marginal seat in the purest sense of the term. It will be a margin of, perhaps, 100-500 votes that the winning candidate wins by on Thursday.

In such a close-fought race, candidates, in search of advantage, focus their energies. Because of an inherent inability as Third Party to influence outcomes in Parliament, Liberal Democrat MPs have frequently prioritised the local-MP role: emphasising case work like a glorified local-councillor, and minimising publicity around the role of national legislator. Now more than ever—given the unpopularity of the Liberal Democrat party after its foray into government as coalition partner—the local record really matters to all incumbent Lib Dems. Our country’s first past the post system (FPTP), and its characteristic local-national tension, invariably constrains our MPs into contradictions. And this contradiction is felt on the doorsteps. With the growing dominance of a politics obsessed with leaders, every vote cast is for a national party and a prospective Prime Minister. But, with our constituency-based voting system, every vote is also for an individual who lives and works in and for your community. Every voter must decide whether they wish to prioritise the election of a parliamentarian or local figure.

This decision is not easy when your incumbent Member of Parliament has voted repeatedly in favour of welfare cuts, the bedroom tax, benefits sanctions, but also attends your church; when they have moulded policy and legislated for the austerity-paradigm, so damaging to so many, but can be found chanting the same chants as you in the local football stands; when they have overseen an economic situation which has seen 8000 people (of a national total of 900,000) feeding their families in food banks, but has also helped to return a missing child; when they have been unable to help the children and old people who live in conditions that are heartbreakingly pitiable, but whose office sorted out some anti-social behaviour; when they have not challenged an austerity which has victimised local businesses, but who is known universally as a great figure who drives constituents around in a visible yellow taxi with his name emblazoned on the side of it. For every politician who represents this tension between the local and the national—one neglected in favour of the other—any vote must be a compromise.

A red Vote Labour sign shines brightly in the springtime sun from a stake in the front garden along one of the main thoroughfares through the northern part of the constituency. In the house garden next to it, a yellow Liberal Democrat diamond, and the house next to that, another Labour sign, and so on, for a surprising distance. This line of alternating colours makes for a fascinating view, and perhaps represents democratic pluralism at its best. It is, at least, an image that captures the constituency’s—if not the country’s—experience of this hard-fought election.

Neil Coyle, the Labour candidate, won in Bermondsey & Old Southwark with 22,146 votes. This represented a swing of 13.8%.

Amy Clarke has a B.A. in PPE from Exeter College, Oxford, and an M.Sc. in Political Science from the London School of Economics. She worked for the World Bank in the US for five years, before returning to London last year, where she works as an Underwriter of Political Risks for an insurance firm in the City.

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Notes Towards A Character-Based Poetics Sun, 10 May 2015 23:05:18 +0000 Leo Mercer

This is the second instalment of a three-part series on contemporary poetics. The next part will reconsider the Faber pamphlets from the standpoint of a character-based poetic

* * *

thjs’s a prediktiv text:
in time (not long!) tek
nology’ll b affirmd
as naturall & daffodilick
as th worldd:look!
where’re th wireroots?

* * *

Like new planets, formed when a significant force acts upon a mahussive and unstable mass of raw material, the largest poetic leaps are taken when a new body of unstable linguistically-raw material is taken and given form. Chaucer’s raw materials were his own spoken language; Wordsworth’s were the everyday speech around him; the twentieth century was dominated by the encounter with raw materials from regional dialects and nonstandard Englishes. Cumulatively, it seems to implicate a spatial narrative, a constant expansion which entails the inclusion of more language and languages over time.

By contrast, the screen is a space which increases resources by imploding them: against the lack of space, it doesn’t seek to rocket to new planets, but to spark big bangs in the small space of a screen; against the lack of time, it doesn’t work to increase life-span, but to increase what is possible in a single moment. In a similar way, the linguistic raw materials of the internet are not about expanding out to incorporate unnoticed languages, but a sudden implosion of language from within. All the elements of written language—letter-orderings, punctuation-formations, sentence-structures, and so on—feel up-for-grabs now, like pixels waiting to be grouped together, in a way that disregards the laws that governed non-virtual space.

The resulting poetry can seem chaotic and whimmed, the poetic principle behind it seeming to be that if the internet is a splurgical, sprawling, unformed space, so is the poetry that arises from it. Imagine reading a poem more extreme than the one at the head of this essay: you begin reading it, and you’re not quite sure how to make sense of it, why certain choices have been made, what art has gone into it, what you’re supposed to get out of it. You count syllables, and they’re irregular. You tap for metre, and it’s irregular. You search for intertextuality, and there is none. What next?

* * *

The fundamental unit of poetry is normally conceived as either the syllable or the beat, thus resulting in syllabic or metrical conceptions of poetry, and leading to a certain way of evaluating poetic craft. This implies a primacy of the music of poetry over the art of poetry. Look at a page, translate that into sound (whether out loud or in your head) and if that works, it is successful.

Now, imagine an earless world, where there is language but no sound, where communication is achieved by the written word alone. Can there be poetry in this world? What would it take for language to be beautiful? The poetic canon as we know it would offer the shape of forms on the page and perhaps elements of typography as the answer; that, plus the actual meanings of the words, would be the stuff of poetry.

This earless world is ours—the text-centred screen-world of social media—and has a significant role in conceptualizing a more detailed response to this question. It is only with our current technology—widespread and wordy and public and visual—that the written word is alive enough to fully create what Charles Whalley has termed the “textual vernacular.” Unlike the specificity of the telegram text, the audio-centricity of phone, and the non-textuality of the TV screen, social media has accompanied a significant change in what words look like in public, and provided a force to challenge the restrictive standardization of English spelling. In short, social media has meant that the written word, through the spontaneity of millions of users, has erupted into a mass of raw materials which can be poetically registered, developed, and beautified.

The fundamental feature of this written communication is that the single character is entirely central. Some of the ephemeral features of our time indicate this: the typewriter/computer keyboard, with its clearly distinguished letters in front of us; typos and emoticons, with their individual idiosyncrasies of symbols; most of all Twitter, where the literary boundary is the number of characters.

This, then, creates the basic premise of a character-based poetics: that the character is the fundamental unit of poetry on the page. This means, when we look at a poem, we are looking at the letter combinations: are they beautifull, unexpectitudinal, evocacious, implicative, humouric, symbolicking, suggestible? Looking through the poetic canon, few poems can be said to be breathtakingly beautiful in this way; rarely have poets been concerned to sequence and more importantly create beautiful looking words in the same way that they might sequence and create beautiful sounding words.

* * *

There are many ways to make words visually beautiful, most of which I don’t know yet; most of those that I do know come from observing what occurs in popular language use and trying to repurpose them to less-expected feelingful ends. The most fundamental is simply respelling the word, which I have written about at The Missing Slate. Respelling a word has emotional impact which can be played into. It can tap into the phonetics of a word, the historical or culturally specific ways in which they are spelt (what can be termed “textual accents”), purposeful misspellings, poetic flourishes. If a respelt word is a different way of arriving at a familiar word, there is also ‘letterplay’, which (like in wordplay) is a playful repurposing of letters to mean other things.

Compare the line “This is a predictive text” with “thjs’s a prediktiv text” and this should be come clear. The word “thjs’s”, for example, taps both into the historical interchangeability of i and j as well as appearing as a believable typo, compounded by the intensity of removing the space and adding an unexpected abbreviation. When “this is” becomes “thjs’s”, it goes beyond the cryingly dull “this is” as it has been used in the poetic past: Donne’s ‘This is my play’s last scene’, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no case of petty right or wrong’, Williams’ ‘This Is Just To Say…’, Eliot’s ‘This is as I had reckoned’, Hill’s ‘This is the durable covenant’. With this in mind, the first is colourless, bland and prosaic. A free-spelt phrase is poetic, creating a sense of a living language, of a poem wrought out of a new language. A standard spelling in a poem is just another form of cliché.

Yet it is not simply a question of free spelling; there is also an expansion of the alphabet. Judging from the visual combinations of characters, non-alphabetical characters become central methods of providing colour, not eccentricities. This can involve the incorporation of emoticons into the linguistic alphabet. A smiley “:D” can brighten a poem, but it’s as much a cliché as any internet metaphor; go a step further, and invite your muse, “:Drink with me Luke” and the language, again, has been given a visual colouring by a mark which cannot be reduced to a punctuation mark. The colon has been made an integral part of the language.

Thinking visually as opposed to aurally, and of characters as opposed to letters, the binary between language and punctuation crumbles, for it is not letters alone that convey meaning; a word cannot be defined as something that can be given sound to. As anyone who writes on the internet will know, a well placed “:)” can stand for a thousand phrases. including “thank you” or “thats amusing” or “i really, really like you”, depending on the context. Emoticons are as much language as the alphabet. It’ll only be a matter of time before the OED puts “:)” as the first word in the dictionary. ;).

* * *

All sorts of other analogies with shifts in artistic paradigms illuminate what adding character-based poetics could allow in future poetry. Think of the alphabet as a palette you can paint with: as we spell poetry at the moment, we are realists, as if there are supposedly clear forms of words that we have to point to in our word-painting. Now: be impressionistic with the alphabet.

Or take a musical analogy, that of harmony and dissonance. This is a tonal sentence; everything you, as an educated reader, have learned about spelling is obeyed. A phrase like “I’ll liaise with the naiads” is, within the tonal sphere of correct spelling, a beautiful one. But in most cases, colours can be inserted by adding non-tonal harmonies: put in a seductively glorious ‘ae’, a few extra jazzzy zeds, or a grumphsome, heady gh. If you want to go Arabian, type alfabetical; if you want to go historical, type alphabetickal; if you want to make someone laugh a little, type alphabetickle.

A further advance is when you can invent colourful combinations of letters that have rarely or never been seen But the real advance is in imagining entirely new letter combinations—can you make a poem with a triple h, with an l before an f at the beginning of a word, where ‘sdf’ is incredibly expressive? The possibilities are endlessish.

Or take a philosophical analogy: believing in the dictionary’s spelling is like believing in spellingular Platonic forms. But as long as we know the generic word “cat”, we can recognize the word “kat”, “catt”, “qatt”, perhaps even “c@”, and all manner of variations on cat. A key to good poetic spelling might be retaining the prose norms of spelling and then being far enough from a word that the spelling has some element of interest, but close enough that it’s recognizable.

The result is a poetry which is entirely at home on the page, in the same way that spoken word is entirely at home in the ear. Yet this does not mean the music is unimportant. Rather, it means that a poem should work well on the page as well on the ear. Someone on a chat room should have beautiful letters to type-shout, just as if someone could shout Keats’ “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard, are sweeter!” to the hills. Keats, writing to Fanny Brawne, once wrote “I want a brighter word than bright”. He could’ve tried ;brite.

Engaging fully with the visuality of the word is not an abandonment of the poem’s sound, but a transformation of it. Just as (what with accents) the look of the word cannot dictate how the mouth performs it, the sound of a word shouldn’t dictate its look on the page. Sound and image are two axes of a poem, the combination of which has to be consciously decided by the poet. A poem can work on either axis; a poem can be written as a text which can be performed in many ways; but equally, an audio-poem can be taken and performed in ten different alphabetical styles.

As far as I can tell, character-based poetics offers an axis of poetic craft which, when added with existing techniques, can create a more linguistically complex, intense, life-full poem. Like every poetic technique, it is slave to the contingency of the alphabet and the language it is being used in. But perhaps this is particularly true of English whose complex, absorbant history of spelling becomes its poetic grace.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.

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Arendt’s Crisis of Modernity Sun, 10 May 2015 23:04:09 +0000 Nathan Pinkoski

The Political Humanism of Hannah Arendt
Michael H. McCarthy
Lexington Books, 2014
322 pages
ISBN: 9780739192870


In the thinking of Hannah Arendt, modernity is a crisis. Her thought is a response to the threats posed to human dignity by the defining events of the 1930s and 1940s: the rise of totalitarian movements. According to Arendt, those events cannot simply be set aside after the demise of Nazi Germany in 1945 and the death of Stalin in 1953, and Europe is not in a position to breathe a sigh of relief after the nightmare. Considered reflection on modernity shows that totalitarianism is not an isolated phenomenon, but one with origins in earlier cultural events and ways of thinking about politics. Arendt’s reflections on modernity conclude that humanity is presently facing a political crisis, a tenacious threat to human dignity.

In Arendt’s view, this political crisis implicates “our tradition of political thought,” which lacks the resources to address this threat effectively and is partly complicit in creating the crisis of modernity. But paradoxically, Arendt insists that the resources for the activity of thinking about politics must come from this past tradition, rather than in ideological speculations about the future. The necessary but critical engagement with “our tradition of political thought” defines the way Arendt thinks. However forceful Arendt’s deconstruction of the tradition may be, one must correspondingly consider her deep respect for the great thinkers of the tradition.

Michael McCarthy’s work very successfully preserves this balance. Unlike many interpreters of Arendt, who either collapse Arendt into a nostalgic laudator temporis acti, or ignore her wider conversation with the tradition and instead extract select themes, McCarthy enables Arendt’s overriding concern—the political crisis of modernity—to emerge from this critical conversation with the tradition. McCarthy provides penetrating accounts of Arendt’s conversations with the pre-Platonic Greek tradition, Plato, Aristotle, and finally Marx. Through these conversations, Arendt crystallizes her developed theoretical insights about politics. For Arendt, what is genuinely political are a person’s actions—their memorable words and deeds—which take place in a public world held in common with other human beings. It is this kind of action that, not being bound by anything, initiates unpredictable and utterly new things in the world. From these reflections on action, Arendt highlights two themes as crucial to the meaning of politics: the importance of human freedom, and the persistence of plurality, the absolute distinctiveness of one human being from another. Political action lends dignity, aspiration, and meaning to human life.

But the tradition of political theory, from its origins in Plato, opposes that account. From its beginning, all the way through modernity, philosophy challenges the value of politics. Arendt’s thinking about modernity proceeds by identifying where the tradition of political thought has devalued the meaning of political life, and by sketching a model of the human being, representing a certain way of life which is derivative of the theoretical principles at hand. Arendt takes her understanding of political phenomena from the model of the citizen of the polis that preceded Platonic philosophy, outlined in Pericles’ famous funeral oration. But Plato objected to that model of the citizen lending such high dignity to human life. In thinking about politics, Plato thought that the life of philosophical contemplation was more valuable than the Periclean life of action. Moreover, Plato interpreted political action (praxis) as making or fabrication (poesis). Fabrication, unlike action, presumes a particular outcome from the start; the carpenter sets to work with the goal of making a table. If politics is analogous to fabrication, it already presupposes a given result from the action of citizens. It removes the chance for initiating unpredictable things in the world, removes any consideration of a relationship to other human beings, and turns politics into a process of finding the right means for satisfying already provided ends. It is the triumph of utility over freedom.

In modernity, these distorted interpretations of political action coalesce as the human model of homo faber, a producer of economic goods. This reverses the Greek priority of political life for the sake of the ideal of the utilitarian craftsman. Being economically productive is more important than being a good citizen. Marx’s reductive explanations of economics and human history emphasize these aspects of economic production deriving from labour, generating animal laborans. This model of the human being, acting for basic economic necessities, is not concerned with how he might relate meaningfully to other human beings. McCarthy recognizes the result of this development. “There has been an undeniable increase in cumulative wealth, but the cost in human aspiration and self-understanding has been immense.” Greater still, the cost is political alienation: alienation from the source of meaning that is only found by acting with other human beings in the public realm. Animal laborans is lonely, and that loneliness spurs his interest in the mass social movements that characterize totalitarianism.

All of this might lead a critic to conclude that Arendt is a strong historical determinist. It might suggest that the ideas of antiquity determine the whole course of modern political events, or that, in the manner of Karl Popper, Plato is responsible for totalitarianism. But McCarthy is too careful an interpreter of Arendt to fall into that trap.

McCarthy emphasises that for Arendt, the political events composing modernity are not caused by a set of ideas. Instead, what emerges, sometime in the 20th century, is a disastrous meeting point between the path of political thought and the tumultuous course of modern European history. McCarthy highlights Arendt’s description of modern European history as told through the story of three character types: the patriotic citizen, the capitalist bourgeois, and the mass man. Here, although there are similarities with Arendt’s account of the tradition of political thought, the narrative is not primarily about philosophical ideas and their consequences for human self-understanding. Drawing on the full breadth of Arendt’s work, McCarthy provides a systematic account of her views on modern European history. It is a story of the institutional collapse of the nation-state. The lofty revolutionary republican ideals of the 18th century—the ideals of the patriotic citizen—collapse into the class struggles of the 19th century. In this period, the capitalist bourgeois eventually convinces the government that his private interests are the interests of the nation as a whole, prompting imperial adventures. Imperialism culminates in competitive warfare, most disastrously in the First World War, and destroys the political and social bonds of the nation-state. The early 20th century, then, is when the nation-state becomes an institutional void. Within that void live the masses, without significant social ties to hold them together. Mass man, like animal laborans, is lonely. With the addition of some well-organized ideologues in the 1920s and 1930s, the catastrophe of totalitarian rule is at hand. But, in spite of the demise of Stalinism and Nazism, our civilization is still broken. As a result of the intellectual, social and political situation informing the modern situation, totalitarianism will not simply disappear. Our present crisis is a drawn-out struggle with totalitarianism, because our loneliness makes us so feeble before it.

By reading Arendt as a humanist, McCarthy guides us to a better understanding of how Arendt thinks about that crisis. Humanism is about the search for the source of human dignity, and rising to the defence of human dignity when it is attacked. Furthermore, McCarthy’s account of Arendt’s reading of modernity displays a considered mastery of her works and the thinkers with which she converses. He shows where Arendt may have erred in her critique of Plato, Aristotle, and Marx, and provides counterpoints on behalf of those thinkers. Those sections are stimulating and help further the conversation in a manner Arendt would have appreciated greatly, as a critical conversation between the present and the “old friends” of the tradition—as Arendt would refer to St Augustine.

McCarthy also offers his own unique thinking-out of the contemporary, 21st century political situation. As an act of thinking, the final section is in the spirit of Arendt’s own example and invitation to try to think in a distinct way. Nevertheless, one does wonder what precisely is distinct about it. On the contemporary situation of American liberal democracy, McCarthy repeats the kind of history of the 20th century found frequently amongst the American brand of liberalism. We are told to avoid the ideologies of capitalism and communism alike, while celebrating Roosevelt’s New Deal for developing the mixed economy. We celebrate Johnson’s continuation and expansion of New Deal programmes. We deplore Reagan’s assault on them, and highlight especially the rise in inequality since the 1980s.

It is, ultimately, a very safe conclusion, providing a familiar answer to some of the problems facing the present. But to the point of Arendt’s legacy as a thinker, there is an opportunity missed. The appropriate legacy of Arendt’s thinking would be to encourage us to go beyond conventional ways of thinking, in order to provide a unique perspective in an age of intellectual ossification, cliché, and doctrinaire ideas. In her lifetime, Arendt’s exercises in thought exhibited an unyielding challenge to orthodoxies of all kinds, whether to left-wing apologists for the Soviet Union or to right-wing proponents for hunting out communists in American society. Part of what makes thinking “dangerous”, as Arendt well knew, is that its results do not often sit comfortably with one’s own acquaintances.

Today, Arendt is more popular than in the past, and one occasionally finds that fashionable, conclusive statements are presented as answers to the question, “What would Arendt do?” This obscures the purpose in Arendt’s thinking. The intellectual underpinning of the question “What would Arendt do?” is wholly unlike that of a familiar question concerning morality, “What would Jesus do?” for that speculation invites conclusive certainty. But in Arendt’s terms, the terms concerning thinking, there can be no conclusive answer. There can only be, out of the resources of the past, a thoughtful exploration of the present: an urgent exploration, to be sure, but one always open for new beginnings in confronting the problems of modernity.

Nathan Pinkoski is a DPhil candidate in Political Theory at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

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Caribbean Conjunctures Sun, 10 May 2015 23:03:29 +0000 Jake Richards

Empire’s Crossroads: A New History of the Caribbean
By Carrie Gibson
Pan Books, 2015 (paperback)
456 pages
ISBN: 9781447217282


The Caribbean could have been called the Tainean. The Spanish decided not to name it after the Tainos, its eirenic inhabitants, but instead after their supposed cannibalistic counterparts, the Caribs. Ever since, the Caribbean has generated myths, fantasies, and a European assumption that imperialists could create whatever ecologies, economies, and societies they wanted in the region. Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads unpacks those assumptions and locates them alongside the agency of locals in her lucid and wide-ranging account.

Crossroads are points on journeys, where people are on the move and goods are exchanged. But they can also signify zones of decision-making and experimentation. Gibson’s work is more convincing on the first two of these points than the last one. She begins her account with European plans to find a sea route to the East and the presence of slaves in the Mediterranean, before charting the introduction of sugar to the Caribbean, the Haitian Revolution (a key turning point for Gibson), and interventions by the US ranging from the Monroe Doctrine to United Fruit. She ends with sections on independence movements through unionized political activism and the growth of the Caribbean’s tourist industry and cultural outputs.

Gibson’s Caribbean is a region animated by broad continuities regarding exchange and population displacement. Imperialism as an alliance between owners of capital and governing structures—loyalty and tax in return for protection and preferential treatment—began with Spanish encomiendas and continued with British sugar plantations and American fruit firms. The imperialism of free trade often compelled governments to intervene to protect their interests in unexpected ways and areas, and led to the development of Caribbean economies based on extraction rather than industrialization, diversification, and service-based industries. (For Gibson, the tourist trade continues the trend of exploitation of Caribbean peoples and their environments by constructing their homes as an “invented paradise.”)

Population displacement began with the diseases brought by Columbus. Initial contact killed off most of the natives of South and Central America. To replace them, imperial powers turned to West African slaves, then black Americans, and finally indentured Indians, Chinese, Javanese, and ‘Syrians’ (a catch-all term for Lebanese Christians as well as people from Syria). In the Dominican Republic, President Trujillo invited Jewish settlers as a way to whiten his dictatorship after massacring Haitians in 1937. The Caribbean’s crossroads invited extractive economic exchanges with imperial powers and a continual search for new sources of immigrant labour. The crossroads offered economic opportunity for imperialists and little guarantee of a home for migrants. Haiti’s Revolution disrupted these continuities. Gibson’s account perspicaciously explains how Haitians conceived of their independence and how they attempted various land reforms under Toussaint L’Ouverture, Alexandre Pétion, and Jean-Pierre Boyer. The following chapter examines how Haiti’s example inspired other revolutionary movements, such as Simon Bolívar’s stay in early 1816 for strategic advice and supplies. These two central chapters are the strongest in the work.

Gibson has a remarkable eye for the inventiveness and contingency involved in administering and subverting imperial rule in the Caribbean. She tracks down confidential Home Office reports that first suggested that Marcus Garvey’s UNIA league for black unity and self-improvement had inspired “the first fruits of the doctrine of socialistic equality.” Robert Lansing, US Secretary of State, predicted that UNIA “might repeat the French experience of Haiti.” Both governments betrayed panicked prescience as early as 1919-21. She relates the tale of an immigration official in Barbados in 1970 who was shaken up when handed a landing card by Stokely Carmichael that read: “In order to free OUR land, we have to KILL.” The official’s face must have been a picture. When Jamaica gained independence in 1962, the island’s press celebrated with adverts exhorting housewives to “be independent of housework!” Clearly every revolution needs vacuum cleaners to clear up after the vanguard.

Gibson’s attempts to pack in this detail and cover such a wide range of places, however, occludes a deeper analysis of the Caribbean as a zone of experimentation. There was a chance to demonstrate what C. A. Bayly has called multiple modernities—the idea that empires provided colonized peoples with the opportunity to reflect on their pre-imperial traditions and practices, to combine them with those introduced by empires, and thereby construct their own views of independence, liberalism, and progress. Writers as different as Frantz Fanon and Derek Walcott, as well as activists like Garvey, contributed to these kinds of projects, which would have been borne out by an analysis of their lives and writings. Instead, Gibson settles for a primary-of-origins scenario, in which the Caribbean emerges as the producer of things that made the West “modern”:

The Europe of today, its financial foundations built with sugar money and the factories and mills built as a result of the work of slaves thousands of miles away; the idea of true equality as espoused in 1794 Saint-Domingue; and even globalization and migration, with the ships passing to and fro taking people and goods in all possible directions, hundreds of years before the term ‘globalization’ was coined.

But it is not clear that Haiti or the plantations caused any of these phenomena; more importantly, their merits as historical subjects are not determined by the plausibility of claims that they did so.

In turn, it can be hard to calculate why individuals or empires thought the Caribbean offered such promising opportunities to devise economic or ecological experiments and to play out fantasies. Did the destruction of native populations create a sort of terra nullius for which there were no rules? Did the long voyage without a coastline in sight make the destinations seem otherworldly and its enslaved inhabitants less than human? Problems of historical motivation can perhaps never be resolved except tentatively, but other historians such as Richard Grove in Green Imperialism (1996) have at least attempted to do so.

The continuities Gibson draws out in terms of extractive economic systems and population displacement can also lead her to make some counterintuitive observations. The Caribbean “provided a training ground” for American interventionist policy; the CIA was involved in attempts to remove reformist presidents in Guatemala in order to protect the interests of United Fruit, something Gibson sees repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. But America’s past interventions do not necessarily entail further counterproductive involvement in the Caribbean. Transparent American involvement seems preferable to Chinese investment, which, as Gibson suggests, may just be an attempt to prevent Caribbean support for Taiwan. Similarly, Gibson criticizes the decision by the World Bank and Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to support the construction of the Royal Oasis Hotel whilst more than 300,000 people live in temporary accommodation following the 2010 earthquake. But it is not obvious that redistributing the investment among all people would lead to the kind of economic dynamism required to enable Haiti to recover. Imperialism may loom large in Caribbean history, but it does not lurk behind every US investment and policy, and capital investment by liberal democratic institutions and states is something one can be more optimistic about.

Gibson’s work is impressively wide-ranging in its geographic scope, archival research, and thematic coverage. Her ability to animate her subjects, and her narrative voice, are admirable. This makes her account an illuminating and pleasurable read, even if the deeper points about modernities, motivations of locals and imperialists, and the possible futures open to the Caribbean at a post-imperial crossroads are wide of the mark.

Jake Richards is studying for an M. St. in Modern British and European History at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.

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Consumer vs Citizen Sun, 10 May 2015 23:02:38 +0000 Rachel Fraser

Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool
Jennifer Jacquet
Allen Lane, 2015
224 pages
ISBN: 9781846146114

When The New Inquiry reviewed Naomi Klein’s book on climate change, they found a polyphonic text. Two Kleins were speaking. The first is embedded in a liberal political tradition and blames financial crises on the mendacity or incompetence of particular actors; this Klein wants a muscular state, sufficiently bulked with regulation to be a match for the butch excesses of the market. The other Klein catches glimpses of a political action which is not framed or structured by state institutions. But in Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary?, there is no jostling between a Marxian and a (suitably foliate) Keynesian voice. Rather, market and state together exhaust the political terrain and cast the individual as either consumer or citizen, categories that look to be the Vladimir and Estragon of late capitalism—bedraggled, ineffectual, and bound together in a wretched companionship.

Onto these two possible roles, Jacquet neatly maps two different affective registers—guilt and shame—and appoints herself advocate for the latter. Her argument goes something like this: if what we want from politics is for certain, very bad things to stop happening, guilt cannot do the work we want it to do. Shame, on the other hand, can be very effective, so we had better get on with its rehabilitation and deployment. For a book that ostensibly recommends the weaponization of affect, Is Shame Necessary? appears deeply uninterested in the texture of emotional life. Guilt and shame peel neatly apart and peer at each other across that great divide between the public and the private. Even if the public/private split is a useful distinction for the political philosopher, it is doubtful that the boundary is of any use in taxonomies of affect. The same uncanny smoothness is on show in brisk, almost touchingly compressed fragments of intellectual history:

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion of the individual was boosted to cultural prominence with phenomena like Romantic literature, which emphasized self-growth.

It is hard (though some will find a way) to disagree with Jacquet that exploited workers, dead dolphins, and a changed climate are very bad things. And she is right that the prospects for a politics of guilt are dim. But her case in favour of shame lacks the plausibility of her critiques. Jacquet’s case against guilt is compelling: if we are to avert eco-catastrophe we need, she says, structural change. But guilt filters environmentalism through the figure of the consumer, leaving it too frail and scattered to be efficacious:

If pesticides are absent from my food but they are in everybody else’s, they still leach in to our shared water supply. If I eat dolphin-friendly tuna but everybody else continues to eat dolphin-unsafe tuna, dolphins remain in trouble. If I stop flying but nobody else does, carbon dioxide emissions continue to steeply increase.

Defenders of guilt often talk of green consumerism as “a first step.” Jacquet is unmoved by such generous gradualism. If one takes moral licensing effects seriously, she points out, green consumerism seems likely to pacify the conscience prematurely and initiate a radical conservationist ethic. One might worry too (as Jacquet sometimes seems about to) that a reiterated appeal to personal responsibility impoverishes our political vocabulary, allowing the impersonal structures, which are the proper objects of political analysis, to remain unseen.

Jacquet’s alternative to consumption is citizenship: instead of buying the right products we should pass the right laws. But given that even micro-climates care little for state lines, a “statist environmentalism” looks poised to replicate the diffuse patchiness of “green consumerism.” How much one is inclined to be impressed by the relative sizes of the patches probably rather depends upon one’s height above sea-level. As Out of the Woods point out in their review of Klein, statism is all very well for those of us not set to become climate migrants (or climate refugees); without a “politics beyond and against the state…a xenocidal lifeboat ethics” is all we can expect.

Certainly, there are political contexts in which the ideology of citizenship can (and has been) put to good use. When protesting against the closure of public libraries, or privatisation of public space, the figure of the citizen can be potent, bringing to mind as it does both the neo-classical Victoriana of civic buildings (for the nostalgic Tory) or the ideals of deliberative democracy (neo-classical too, in their way). But when rafts carrying migrants sink in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Australia’s (ghoulishly-named) Christmas Island, appeals to citizenship have a way of looking more like tarted-up parochialism than the beginnings of a prodigal internationalism.

Insofar as shame, according to Jacquet’s way of thinking, is a proxy for the possibilities of action within the confines of a liberal-market state, her advocacy is unlikely to persuade any reader suspicious of such a circumscribed politics. But one needn’t have this sort of worry to be unsympathetic to the sort of project Jacquet has in mind; distaste for shame as a disciplinary mechanism is a staple of liberal politics. Jacquet is not the first to reclaim shame for a progressive politics. Dan M. Kahan of Yale Law School, recasting shame as a “non-violent form of resistance,” packages it as the driving force behind a series of progressive measures designed to publicly humiliate offenders. Nussbaum (or, as Jacquet calls her, without apparent irony, “shame-expert Martha Nussbaum”) is suspicious of this project. She draws a distinction—one that she takes to be politically salient—between emotions that remind us of and emotions that occlude our fragility and ‘incompleteness.’ The problem with shame, in the light of this distinction, is not that shaming is harmful (after all, some kinds of harm may even be socially necessary), but rather the tightness of its connection to the ways in which conformity, when valorised, becomes a way of expressing fantasies of invulnerability. Where the communitarian rehabilitator of shame sees it as a way of ensuring that the powerful conform to our norms, Nussbaum worries that if shame is to have the emotional charge it does, it runs off a (possibly submerged) conception of normality that pulls in the opposite direction to liberal commitments. Recognising that world building is invariably a form of bricolage—that when we fashion lives for ourselves we tend to make use of what was already lying around—needn’t mean neglecting the cultivation of a culture in which the costs of frailty, dependence, and idiosyncrasy are not too high.

Jacquet does not seem worried about these questions, and that is, perhaps, okay. Her sights are set on changing corporate behaviour. And despite the ruling of the US Supreme Court that corporations are people, it would be difficult for a liberal to worry that shame is an affront to corporate dignity. But if this is the source of her indifference to (sophisticated) liberal hand wringing, there remains a problem. Jacquet observes, quite rightly, that corporations don’t have psychologies like ours: “unlike individuals, Chevron cannot be motivated to change through guilt.” But if Chevron is not similarly immune to the vicissitudes of shame, it remains unclear whether this is because of some difference between a guilty CEO and a shamed one, or because we can shame, but not guilt, the sorts of things that lack consciences. These two issues knot together into a question of political ontology: the sort of thing that capital and corporations are, and what sorts of relation they stand in to the personalities of those caught up in their directing their flows. “You may,” Marx might say, in the sarcastic, gothic voice of the producer addressing his employer, “be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A., and you may have the odour of sanctity as well, but the thing you represent—when you come face to face with me—has no heart in its breast. What seems to throb there is my own heartbeat.” If capitalism is a system whose logics are insensitive to the personalities caught up in it, then talk of virtues, vices, and their emotional outgrowths may have moral import but will be useless to a project of political analysis.

Jacquet tries to dodge both the political and the ontological question with insistence that shame is “scalable” and by determinedly fixing her gaze on shaming considered as an act (something we do) rather than as a state (something we feel). There is a distinction here, and an interesting, if not unique one—blame also looks to be both something we do to others and an attitude that we have towards them. But disambiguation is not analysis; presumably it’s not just a neat semantic coincidence that we call these states, attitudes, and actions by the same name. In the case of shame, it looks to be an important part of the act of shaming someone that you aim, in some loose sense, at the production of a certain emotional state. Talk of one leads back to talk of the other. The more one thinks through the mechanics of Jacquet’s proposals, the more it begins to seem that her talk of shame is tinged with metaphor that is suggestive at best, a florid misdirection at worst. Perhaps these flourishes encode a workable political ontology, but probably not. For most often, the books reads as a public relations manual, dressed in the sleek vestments of affect theory.

Rachel Fraser is a Philosophy DPhil student at Linacre College, Oxford, with interests in language and epistemology.

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