The Oxonian Review Thu, 26 Nov 2015 10:14:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 In the valley of its making Thu, 26 Nov 2015 09:00:17 +0000 Kristin Grogan

Simon Armitage
‘The Parable of the Solicitor and the Poet’
Inaugural Professor of Poetry Lecture
Examination Schools, Oxford
November 24, 2015

It was a hard act to follow. Geoffrey Hill’s lectures were difficult, certainly; obscure even, but always an event. The election last summer held the promise of change. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel Prize winner, would have been an extraordinary move, essential for Oxford. With A.E. Stallings, perhaps, (perhaps!) a woman might have been installed. Simon Armitage won by three hundred and one votes, and claimed his place in Matthew Arnold’s chair.

Oxford, to be sure, saw the election of Armitage as a volte-face, an anti-Hill. Armitage is a slow, dour, gentle speaker; he has a deep and charming Yorkshire accent. Where Hill is difficult, Armitage is simple; while Hill was educated at Keble College, Oxford, Armitage is self-taught. Armitage feeds us dryly delivered and heartily enjoyed one-liners, and the laughter they provoke is of an entirely different kind to that of his predecessor. Hill was funny, no doubt about it, but always at both his and our own expense. His jokes made a mockery of his position, of the silliness of the Professor of Poetry lecture and the authority it encodes; he sent us chasing wild references to nowhere or trying to make sense of his deliberate opacity; he would cite page numbers of little-known texts as if we were intimately acquainted with them; he handed us ridiculous declarations with absolute certainty: “Poetry is [x]”, he would bellow, as hundreds of serious hands faithfully copied down the secret to poetry. Hill was grumpy, willfully ambiguous, he devoted much of his final lecture to an excoriation of the much-loved Phillip Larkin; he made a show, a game, and a sham of his age, status, and curmudgeonliness. Armitage, poet of the people, is genuine, earnest; he clearly loves poetry very much and desires for many others to love it too.

Yet I can’t help but feel that Hill, in both his lectures and his poetry, makes us do more, and better, work. Armitage began his paper with the promised parable of his title: a poet visits a solicitor, the solicitor mentions that he happens to dabble in verse, the poet reads some of the solicitor’s earnest but amateurish lines about his wife’s death. This leads to Armitage’s extended meditation, he tells us, on “poetry’s position in the actual world.”

The actual world: yet it soon becomes clearer that what Armitage means is not poetry’s role in the world, but in the market. Armitage’s goal is, ostensibly, for poetry to enjoy a renewed relevance. What he really means is not relevance at all, but popularity, and marketability, which are not quite the same thing as relevance. Armitage repeats a familiar elegy: poetry has slid into obscurity and insignificance, read only by an elite few. Implicit here is the old argument that poetry’s incomprehensibility, its refusal to speak to a wide audience, is responsible for its present predicament, for its imminent and well-deserved death.

Armitage’s heroes are the poets who have escaped this trap of obscurity and achieved popularity, which is measured in sales and clicks. Central to this argument is Claudia Rankine, whose book Citizen: An American Lyric recently won the Forward Prize. Yet Armitage’s analysis of Rankine’s magnificent book barely qualifies as analysis. We learned that Rankine won numerous prizes; is on the New York Times bestseller list alongside John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer; that her book doesn’t always resemble poetry; and that this, quite probably, is important, although the implications of how and why are never teased out. He circled around race. His comments about the book’s politics were limited to noting that Rankine is “topical,” attuned to “current events.” His lecture did what all critics secretly fear: it failed to do justice to its subject; it fell woefully short of the book’s complexity, its urgency, its politics, its power.

For all of Armitage’s obvious and honest love of poetry, for all of his professed desire to bring it to the masses, there is very little attempt to engage with poetry itself. What there is, instead, is a fetishisation of number. Rankine is worth noting less because of her politics or her formal strategies than her sales; Kate Tempest, bizarrely equated with Rankine, is lauded for her number of YouTube views. Armitage fixates, hungrily, on figures: consumption is his yardstick of value.

This, surely, is to have misunderstood. Or it is to have missed that most basic of political lessons: the one that views mass consumption with a critical eye; that learns to distinguish between the politically engaged spirit of the collective and the uncritical, hungry, consumptive many; and that seeks forms of value that are independent of numerical validation.

There are linguistic problems, too. In adopting the role of the everyman, speaking to and for all, Armitage’s lecture tended towards banality and platitudes. Poetry “compels and repels”; it “intrigues and bemuses” and “enriches and embarrasses”; Kate Tempest “puts the body back into poetry”; the virtue of Alt-Lit is that, through its appearance, “the virtual has become the real.” To be sure, Hill often relied on cliché, but with a heavy irony. Armitage’s choices lack Hill’s critical distance; we always received the sense that Hill was working with inadequate language to point out the inadequacy of language itself, the inevitable lacunae in the way we talk about poetry.

I might be able to get on board with a wide-scale democratization of poetry if that vision did adequate justice to poetry itself, rather than stripping it of all that makes it both difficult and desirable, and if that vision made space for desirable difficulty. Armitage’s argument in favour of popularity risks disarming and defanging verse. It drains poetry of its unique ability to articulate dissonance, to work through poetry’s resistances to itself, to its reader, and to its world. Eager to find solutions, Armitage has little interest in the problems of poetry—the internal tensions which, after all, seem to be what make it worth reading in the first place. “Poems,” James Longenbach reminds us, “show us how it feels to like trouble.” Part of that trouble comes from poetry’s holes, gaps, the things it leaves unsaid. If digestible, marketable products are the goal, these things—the negative ways of thinking that define poetry as poetry—will have to go.

What is Armitage’s endgame? Does he really desire for poetry to be sold at every W.H. Smith in the country, and if so, what would that mean? I wonder what sort of verse could do that, could be sold in that way and that quantity, what purpose that verse would play, and why we would want that in the first place. Do we desire more Carol Ann Duffys? I can think of nothing worse.

Armitage doesn’t address these questions, beyond pleading for popularity for its own sake. Nor does he think about the real political implications of poetry—nor of race—and the way poetry might act on and shape acts of resistance. What does it mean that Rimbaud can inspire college professors to rob banks, or that the very act of reading Citizen at a Donald Trump rally can bring the criminal idiocies of the Republican Party into clearer view? I would like to see Armitage engage seriously with poetry’s politics, rather than plead for softening it into something to be swallowed by as many mouths as possible.

An old member of Armitage’s professorial cohort once famously declared that poetry “makes nothing happen”. Maybe nothing comes of poetry, not a thing. But the unimaginable possibilities of that nothing, that empty, still centre of opportunity, can be found in verse: in the gaps in our language, in the openings of the line break that both correspond to and challenge our ways of thinking. Poetry allows us to encounter the blank spaces and the forms of negative thought that the relentless positivism of late capitalism—a capitalism in which things must be measured, valued, equated, considered in ratios, always in quantities but never qualities—denies. The value of nothing: that is the lesson that poetry, at its best, has to teach. I would hate to see it lose that.

Kristin Grogan is writing a thesis on poetry and labour at Exeter College, Oxford. She is Editor-in-Chief of The Oxonian Review.

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Superstars and Supermassive Black Holes Wed, 25 Nov 2015 13:56:32 +0000 Kanta Dihal

Black Hole: How an Idea Abandoned by Newtonians, Hated by Einstein, and Gambled on by Hawking Became Loved
Marcia Bartusiak
Yale University Press, 2015
256 pages
ISBN: 9780300210859






We will never be able to see black holes. The very concept of a black hole—a dense point in space from which light can never escape—implies that direct observation is impossible. It is only within the last few decades that we have finally been able to infer their presence from the effects they have on their surroundings, as they draw in visible matter and emit x-ray radiation. It is no wonder, then, that from the moment of their first conception, the idea of such a thing as a black hole was met with scepticism and even scorn within the scientific community. And yet their conception dates back centuries, and their modern debut arose as a direct consequence of the most famous scientific theory of the twentieth century: Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In other words, the kind of history that would be an ideal topic for a popular science book.

Black Hole, by science journalist and science writing professor Marcia Bartusiak, therefore seems long overdue. Bartusiak presents a comprehensive overview of both the history and the science behind the black hole. A black hole is not a hole, nor is it black. It is the remnant of what once was a huge star, which collapsed at the end of its lifetime in a supernova. If the remnant that is not blown away is substantial enough, at least three to four times the mass of our sun, the gravitational attraction will be so intense that the entire star will collapse in onto itself into a singularity, a dimensionless point with infinite density. Its name, Bartusiak points out, comes from a very inappropriate comparison between these phenomena and the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Bartusiak starts off her history with Newton and his development of the laws of gravitation. She shows how it in fact did not take very long before the first idea of a black hole emerged in the eighteenth century. What emerges is a surprising history with which not many casual readers will be familiar. As she engagingly describes, the Englishman John Michell extrapolated the idea that larger stars, which would have a larger gravitational attraction, would slow down the light emitted from them. Using Newton’s laws of gravitation, published only a century earlier, he calculated how big a star would have to be to ensure that no light would be able to escape from the star at all. He concluded that star would have a diameter larger than the orbit of Mars, would be just as dense as our Sun, and would be entirely invisible.

Bartusiak soon leaves this brief historical survey, however, and brings up Einstein in her second chapter already. Although Einstein himself believed black holes could not actually exist, he did explain how they might be theoretically possible. His 1915 paper on general relativity explained how gravity curves the spacetime paths that light must follow. Therefore, an immensely heavy body could curve spacetime back onto itself so that light would never be able to escape from it. In the remaining eleven chapters, the book covers the period from Einstein’s papers on relativity to Hawking in the 1970s, with the epilogue covering the most recent research concerning attempts to detect gravitational waves.

The book traces the journey of the black hole becoming an accepted concept in science in a linear fashion, which is of course only natural for a historical overview, but also in a way that suggests an absolute, linear development which has a well-defined climax in the present. The past was filled with conflict, the present is more peaceful. Bartusiak thus risks presenting the reader with an unduly one-dimensional view of scientists in the past, which becomes clear in her discussion of Einstein. Readers deriving all their knowledge about Einstein from Black Hole may well end up thinking that by the time of his death, Einstein was ridiculed by his younger, more modern scientific peers, and that he had not contributed anything useful since the General Theory of Relativity. The timeline at the end of the book gives only the information that this is what Einstein thought of himself at the end of his life. In fact, Einstein’s scepticism about—and strong criticism of—quantum theory, especially the 1935 Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox, proved to have been extremely helpful for the further development of quantum physics. Einstein may have adhered to the wrong viewpoints, but even his mistakes led to new scientific breakthroughs.

Bartusiak has illustrated her work, and several of the illustrations are taken from Wikimedia Commons, an intriguing choice for a Yale University Press work. Though it may be difficult to illustrate a book on a phenomenon that cannot be seen, the visual simply cannot be left out from an astrophysics popularisation, especially not since the Hubble telescope inundated the world with astounding images of distant galaxies. Bartusiak has chosen to alternate such galaxy photographs with illustrations that are used as a visual aid to support Bartusiak’s scientific explanations. However, many illustrations are simply photographs of the key players in the history of the black hole. They helpfully provide readers with faces to match up with the many names that are mentioned as the history of the black hole unwinds across eras and disciplines but unfortunately, the photographs are all of men.

Last year saw the publication of a rather similar book. Pedro Ferreira’s The Perfect Theory, which is acknowledged in Bartusiak’s bibliography, is a history of gravity, and is therefore equally concerned with black holes. His book similarly relies on biographical oddities, and it must be said that he comes up with more startlingly original biographical details than Bartusiak, many of which he seems to have found through personal interviews with the people involved. Bartusiak, on the other hand, narrates a conversation with Arthur Eddington which is by now really something of an old hat: Eddington, being told that he is apparently one of three people who understands relativity, replies that he wonders who the third person is.

Bartusiak’s work concludes with an all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion that ties in with her model of linear development: after all the fights and disputes described in the previous chapters, by 2013 the black hole is a commonly accepted phenomenon which has outgrown science fiction. This “happy ending” glosses over the fact that black holes are still the subject of heated debate. Though their existence is agreed upon, the way black holes function is still largely a mystery to which various solutions have been proposed over the recent years. Bartusiak focuses mainly on developments up to the 1980s, and limits her discussion of more recent findings to the attempts to detect gravity waves. This means that she leaves out the conflicts that have arisen in the twenty-first century, such as the black hole information paradox and the firewall paradox. The latter is mentioned in passing in the final chapter, but the suggestion is made that this is only a minor hypothesis among many, rather than a source of conflict comparable to the ones she covered in the rest of her book. Bartusiak’s conclusion is complacent, whereas contemporary black hole astrophysics contains at least as much excitement as the twentieth-century history she so vividly describes.

Black Hole is a thin book, just over two hundred pages, which includes a timeline, notes, and an extensive and interesting bibliography. Fortunately, Bartusiak manages to avoid the pitfall of condensing a book so strongly that the scientific concepts are thrown at the reader at a pace too quick to follow—a mistake previously made by, for instance, Stephen Hawking. Her language is colloquial, immensely so at times, but it fits in well with the type of narrative she is presenting to the reader: a mix of quirky personal narratives and reports of fierce conflicts. This work comes highly recommended as a timely tie-in for those who have seen the spellbinding visual depictions of black holes in Interstellar (2014): this book is able to comprehensively explain exactly why viewers were so spellbound.

Kanta Dihal is a second-year DPhil candidate in English at St Anne’s college, Oxford.

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Climbing Mt. Thesis: A how-to guide Wed, 25 Nov 2015 13:56:19 +0000 Joel Krupa





How to Write a Thesis
Umberto Eco
MIT University Press, 2015
256 pages
ISBN: 9780262527132

For doctoral students transitioning from the role of “student” to “candidate,” the second, third, and fourth years of their program are devoted to completing an exciting (but potentially daunting) task: the preparation, writing, refinement, and defense of a research-intensive thesis. Navigating this journey brings its own special blend of challenges. In such circumstances, a thoughtful, funny, and learned guide that can clarify both pitfalls and opportunities is useful to have available. The Italian philologist Umberto Eco lends just such a hand in his newly translated text How to write a thesis, the first English translation of the 1977 classic Come si fa una tesi di laurea. Eco’s faithfully translated book is written with the intent to be applicable to a broad range of subjects, and should be added to all emerging scholars’ bookshelves.

One of the first things the reader will notice is that the book is largely bereft of all-too-common academic stuffiness and impenetrability. It is written as a chapter by chapter examination, with sections and sub-sections bearing amusing titles such as “Must you read books? If so, what should you read first?” and “How to avoid being exploited by your advisor”. Indeed, for some (including your correspondent) who appreciate prose that gives off hints of an opinionated polemic, this text reads like a breath of fresh air. Eco is delightfully unique and, in places, appropriately irreverent. He does not handle braggadocio well (“there is nothing more irritating than [foot]notes that seem inserted only to impress”), nor is he willing to tolerate academic conventions merely because they are de jour. A memorable example of the latter can be found in a section on conducting research, where Eco explains that one academic writing convention is “quite popular in the United States, and I find it quite annoying.” This type of bluntness makes an otherwise potentially dull topic manual much more readable. Eco delivers advice in such a way that you are unlikely to quickly forget it—he advises us to remember to select “a topic that is extremely limited, perhaps very easy, and perhaps despicably specialized”, and derides “emotional” writing as characteristic of inexperienced writers on their way to self-published releases.

Eco is a fervent promoter of meticulousness. He sees the thesis as a sort of training stage—a deliberate, methodical exercise that lays the foundations for future output—and explains that he relied heavily on the skills first developed in the thesis process to make his later (and more broadly impactful) scholarly and popular contributions. This rigor begins at the very start of the thesis process, rooted in the scientific method (a process meeting core conditions like “the research deals with a specific object, defined so that others can identify it” and “the research is useful to others”) and extending to the use of note cards, cross-referencing, and sheer hard work to arrive at evidence-based conclusions and empirical recommendations. This, along with things like careful bibliography and reading file compilation, contribute to what Eco calls “erudite etiquette” – an admirable framework that shows a polished scholar with an awareness of their discipline’s conventions and requirements.

Of course, an awareness of human frailties is important too. Eco’s demands for diligence are such that one could be forgiven for, at times, expelling gasps of exasperation at some of the requirements (I, for one, could not assemble readings outlines with the level of dedication that Eco suggests). But the results of pursuing academic excellence are sweet, and— if one works hard enough—will be wonderful to savour. Be authoritative, he counsels, when making declarations on what you have found in your research—especially since you could very well be the global expert on that (very narrow) specific subject!

Although the book is brimming with useful short tips, a few are particularly worth sharing. To start with, Eco understands that the thesis endeavour is idiosyncratic, and as a result, a wide range of considerations need to be assessed when determining how best to proceed. For example, when choosing a topic, Eco urges geographical practicality (a sensible recommendation, given that scholars can sometimes undertake initiatives that pull them far from their place of residence, with all the attendant financial and familial burdens). Moreover, he holds that there is nothing wrong with further exploring subject areas in which you are comfortable or to which you have personal exposure—indeed, it may be required, such as when one is tackling primary works that involve a need to understand a foreign language. One of Eco’s injunctions, quoted on the book jacket, summarizes this perspective nicely: “If you do not know the definition of a term, avoid using it. If it is one of the principal terms of your thesis and you are not able to define it, call it quits.”

In addition, Eco urges focus—an important concept for those of us (and I am certainly guilty of this) who can be drawn into the spiral of dilettantism all too easily. A thesis does not exist to impress new love interests or as a method to summarize one’s command of the English language; instead, “your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset”, and you should not be afraid to tailor it to meet this need. Don’t try to cover too much, as this will make it much more difficult for you to be comprehensive. Consistency is also key—for everything from footnotes to referencing—and needs to be carefully monitored at all times.

The twin themes of “focus” and “consistency” overlap nicely with the related issue of brevity. Eco is a strong proponent of suitable conciseness. This applies to our word choice, as well as the length of our sentences. Extended sentences, he counsels, need to be abandoned, as do fears that repeating the subject is a bad thing. “Begin new paragraphs often”, he says, and do not try avant-garde writing styles that take you outside of the traditional thesis mold. Citation customs that I was unfamiliar with also get some attention. Eco proposes the term “cf.”, a term with which some students from outside the humanities might not be familiar (it refers readers to additional material for the purposes of comparison), and he reminds us that we should avoid citing “notions of common knowledge.”

Eco also nicely tackles the sometimes fragile supervisor-student relationship. Accept it as a worthy challenge, he advises, if a supervisor trusts you enough to assign a thesis on a topic that the supervisor finds new and interesting. The student can take it as an intellectual compliment and an encouraging sign that they will be prodded and molded during the adventure into unfamiliar territory. At the same time, your correspondent believes that you should not be afraid to push back if you do not agree with the demands or cannot meet the supervisor’s needs with your current skill set (or, as Eco would say, “you must write a thesis that you are able to write”).

A few shortcomings are worth noting. At times, the undeniably erudite Eco can come across as pedantic, as he repeatedly uses series of long, difficult to follow names to make his points (lines such as “Castelvetro’s and Robortello’s sixteenth-century commentaries, the Loeb edition with the parallel Greek text, and Augusto Rostagni’s and Manara Valgimigli’s…” give the reader a taste of the complexity found in these pages). Eco imputes his blazing intellect on to his students, and this tendency, as other reviews of this text have noted, could make new researchers feel somewhat inferior, especially if their still-developing thought patterns do not make the links and interconnections that naturally occur to an intellectual of Eco’s age and pedigree.

Another shortfall is that, given that the book was first published nearly forty years ago, some of the advice is simply unnecessary to think about in the modern academic environment. Word processors, Google Drive, and other technological tools have made the problematic aspects of Eco’s era of scholarship seem out-dated (it is, for instance, safe to claim that prohibitively high costs of typewriting and typewriter editing are not likely to be a major consideration in a 2015 student budget). Today’s students are now far more pre-occupied with increasing costs of living and rapidly growing tuition costs and, needless to say, his suggestions on how best to make use of limited technical resources can probably be safely ignored.

Finally, a word of caution is in order. A few of Eco’s suggestions are presented as best practices, but they are subjective. He lays out detailed prescriptions for scholastic excellence in referencing, for example, but there does not seem to be any a priori reason to strictly adhere to Eco’s approach. To his credit, he acknowledges as much, noting that the bibliography presentation will be dependent on the type of thesis, but given the extensive coverage that is provided in the text, it is important to remember that Eco’s methods are not necessarily superior to the mainstream formats. I, for one, prefer to remain in my comfort zone and consult the APA manual, whereas others opt for Harvard and Chicago, which may or may not be required by publication venues, the university, or the discipline’s conventions.

Eco’s work will provide welcome advice for those students who are worried about how best to demonstrate their intellectual aptitude in the thesis, a pursuit which, even if they continue on to post-doctoral fellowships or a professorship, represents the culmination of years of training in and of itself. While readers will need to pick and choose the portions of the text with applications to their research—a typical English-speaking physical geographer studying carbon cycles is unlikely to worry about the importance of using the correct translation of the books of ancient philosophers, while a mathematician is probably writing a thesis largely lacking in foreign accents—there is something for everyone here. Writing a thesis is about the journey, not the ultimate destination, and it should be an enjoyable—even exhilarating!—experience. At the very least, graduate students can absorb Eco’s conclusions; namely, that “writing a thesis should be fun”, and “writing a thesis is like cooking a pig: nothing goes to waste.”


Joel Krupa is a doctoral student in the Department of Geography & Planning at the University of Toronto, Canada. He completed his M.Sc. at Mansfield College, Oxford.

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Boredom and Paradise: Houellebecq’s Submission Wed, 25 Nov 2015 13:56:04 +0000 Oliver Neto






Michel Houellebecq
William Heinemann, 2015
256 pages
ISBN: 978-1785150241

Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, imagines a scenario in which a Muslim political party forms a government in France and proceeds to reshape the country’s society and culture. It was first published in French (as Soumission) on 7 January 2015. On the same day, Islamist gunmen burst into the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered twelve people, including Houellebecq’s friend Bernard Maris. The front cover of that week’s issue of the publication featured a gruesome caricature of Houellebecq proclaiming that in 2022—the year in which Submission is set—he will observe Ramadan.

Sometimes the arrangement of bare facts can evoke what Submission’s jaded narrator-protagonist François calls, in a rare moment of conviction, “the uncanny power of literature.” Before we even begin to read Houellebecq’s novel, the events surrounding its publication have already supplemented its content; they constitute an eerie foreword, an intrusion of the real into the novel’s symbolic terrain. One troubling consequence has been the interpretation of Submission’s improbable premise as a prophecy by the political right; Marine Le Pen, for example, called it “a fiction that could one day become reality”. Since the release of Lorin Stein’s English translation in September, the response in the Anglophone press has largely focused on the extent to which its dystopian content can be called Islamophobic, and whether its author was “irresponsible” to write it. However, far from attempting to offer a realistic projection of the future, Houellebecq’s novel is concerned with the strange indistinction between reality and its representation. An indistinction that was generated, in exaggerated form, by the gruesome context of its own publication. If the novel has a definite political target at all, it is those politicians, opinion formers and (in the case of its narrator) academics who take this indistinction too seriously.

As with many of Houellebecq’s protagonists, François is the lonely, misogynistic, middle-aged son of divorced parents. He is also a literature professor, specialising in the work of the French Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans. The career that François has forged through the study of Huysmans’ work has trapped him in a “boring, predictable life”. Nevertheless, he justifies this monotonous life from the novel’s opening chapter, by comparing it to Huysmans’ own. At the same time, the very presentation of this novelistic identification between Houellebecq’s narrator and the subject of his academic career proves to be unstable. François’s central claim during his paen to Huysmans, that “[t]o love a book is to love its author”, conjures up an image of Houellebecq’s public persona that might in fact suggest the exact opposite. Only a reader capable of feeling “love” for a “[n]ihilist, reactionary, cynic, racist, shameless misogynist”, as Houellebecq once described himself, can trust François’ judgment. This mischievous metatextual operation disturbs the comfortable mode of identification that has sustained François since his days as a young doctoral student: the authority he accords to literature and what he considers to be its ability to “put you in touch with another human spirit, as a whole”. From the opening pages of the novel, it is clear that the protagonist’s idle bovarysme and, by extension, our own, are to be a target for Houellebecq’s particular brand of sardonic scrutiny.

François is almost perversely in thrall to aspects of life that are mediated or enhanced. Firsthand experiences leave him indifferent. When he stops off at an empty service station and finds the cashier murdered, he casually helps himself to a sandwich and a Michelin guide. When an academic function is suspended, as gunfire erupts around the corner, he feels strangely unaffected, somehow “convinced the fighting would go no farther than the boulevard de Clichy”. Death and rioting flicker in François’s peripheral vision. Microwavable meals, on the other hand, open up a profound metaphysical dimension for him: their “colourful, happy packaging” encourages a “sense of participating in a collective experience, disappointing but egalitarian”. As historic events rage outside, the ready meal enhances François’s enjoyment of the filtered spectacle provided by the media. Having missed a major political debate because “I was fucked. Or rather, my microwave was fucked”, the professor goes to great lengths to ensure that he has a generous selection of takeaway food ready on election night. François’s proclivity for ready meals is a comical indicator of the extent to which his most intense experiences are supplementary. They mediate or enhance other experiences that do not necessarily involve him in and of themselves, to the extent that he is“fucked” without them.

Houellebecq’s prose, whose sharpness is preserved in Stein’s translation, is characteristically terse. He elaborates François’s fragmentary thoughts through the paratactic accretion of apparently unrelated details: “Certain phrases of Huysmans about the Middle Ages floated vaguely through my mind. This Armagnac was absolutely delicious. I was about to answer Tanneur when I realized I couldn’t express a coherent thought.” Often, Houellebecq makes a virtue of François’s incoherence. As his smooth right-wing colleague Lempereur holds forth on the French fin-de-siècle, François grows bored and commits a satirical faux-pas: “‘You’re what,’ I asked, ‘Catholic? Fascist? A little bit of both?’ It just popped out. I was out of practice with intellectuals of the right – I didn’t know how to behave.” In essence, though, François’s flashes of disengaged brilliance proceed from his thoroughgoing cynicism, an attitude that pervades much of the novel. Through his faltering intellect and ethical ambivalence, he is presented as a symbol for the general attitude of “free-floating doubt”, upon which the Muslim candidate Mohamed Ben Abbes capitalises during his election campaign.

This is where Submission perhaps differs from Houellebecq’s previous works, in the scope of its social criticism and the depth of its cynicism. “The search for meaning has returned”, the author has declared, “people aren’t content to live without God”; and Submission has in fact been read, in Mark Lilla’s article in the New York Review of Books, as a “dystopian conversion tale”. Yet the novel itself is a kind of conversion, one that was prompted by its author’s failure to write a conversion tale. Houellebecq had originally intended to write Submission as La Conversion, a comparatively straightforward story in which François was to adopt Catholicism in the manner of Huysmans. He failed. Instead, the protagonist abdicates from what Houellebecq calls “the search for meaning” in a typically bathetic scene. Although, during a visit to the statue of the Virgin of Rocamadour, he does in fact experience something like a religious reverie, which he quickly puts down to hypoglycaemia. When he returns the next day on a full stomach, he is unable to repeat the experience: “The virgin waited in the shadows, calm and timeless […] but little by little I felt myself losing touch, I felt her moving away from me in space and across the centuries while I sat there in my pew, shrivelled and puny.” He eventually gets up, slinks off down the stairs and drives back to Paris.

Upon returning to the statue of the Virgin at Rocamadour, François cannot repeat his own experience, let alone Huysmans’s original conversion. This is consistent with his tendency to return to people, places and objects that he has previously considered insignificant, in a series of fruitless efforts to renew his interest in life. After ending his relationship with Myriam, he goes on a disappointing date with his former girlfriend Aurélie, finding that with her bitterness and his disgust at her ageing body, “it seemed tactless, almost unthinkable, to talk about the old days”. He then repeats the experience with another ex-partner, Sandra, before returning to Myriam (twice). His failures to convert the past into a vindication of the present result in the same tedium that he feels when reading the novels Huysmans wrote after his conversion: “In the absence of any real emotional identification, what an atheist slowly comes to feel when confronted with Durtal’s spiritual adventures […] is, unfortunately, boredom.”

“There is a very profound kind of boredom”, T. S. Eliot once remarked, “which is an essential moment in the religious life, the boredom with all living insofar as it has no religious meaning.” The argument that eventually sways François is one that offers to free him from the burden of searching for meaning. According to Rediger, the cynical new director of the university where he works, the Koran “starts with the idea, the basic idea of all poetry, that sound and sense can be made one, and so can speak the world”. Rather than actually taking the trouble to learn Arabic so as to read it, François has only to learn its “rhythms, rhymes, refrains, assonance”. The novel’s dream-like closing section, a kind of anti-narrative in which François indulges a series of brief, disconnected fantasies about how his “new life” will pan out after his conversion, comes to an abrupt end with his ambiguous conclusion: “I would have nothing to mourn.” His ‘submission’ to Islam is as much an act of resignation as one of conversion.

François’s conversion to Islam substitutes itself for and enhances his initial attempt to justify his existence through Catholicism. More broadly, Submission’s hysterical conception of an Islamic French state is a thematic and formal supplement for its own failure to imagine a realistic solution for its chronically bored protagonist. Although Houellebecq’s declaration that “the search for meaning has returned” suggests that his latest novel might attempt to pursue it, Submission ditches this search in favour of a dystopian fantasy of a society in which it is no longer relevant. Therein lies its pessimism and, perhaps, the urgent nature of the political and philosophical concerns that it raises.

Oliver Neto is a PhD candidate at the University of Bristol.

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Lingering Suffering Wed, 25 Nov 2015 13:55:51 +0000 Helena F.S. Lopes






China’s Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949
Diana Lary
Cambridge University Press, 2015
293 pages
ISBN: 9781107678262

A renewed interest in the Republican period in China has been taking place in Western historiography in recent years. But although excellent works have been written on China’s War of Resistance against Japan, the Civil War that followed has remained less prominent in the English-language scholarly landscape. Diana Lary’s most recent book, China’s Civil War: A Social History, 1945-1949, is thus a welcome addition, shifting the main focus from the political, diplomatic, and military dimensions that framed the key existing books (in English) on the topic—Suzanne Pepper’s The Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 and Odd Arne Westad’s Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950—to a predominantly social dimension. Lary’s book focuses on “the painful and divisive social impacts of the war, impacts that deepened the process of fundamental, jarring change that had started in the Resistance War.” This focus is not a novelty in her body of work. Lary, a Professor at the University of British Columbia, has written extensively on aspects of the human experiences of war in China, from Warlord Soldiers to latter works on the War of Resistance (such as the edited volume with Stephen R. MacKinnon Scars of War: The Impact of Warfare in Modern China). China’s Civil War holds a number of similarities with her previous book on the Sino-Japanese War, not only in its overarching topic (“human suffering and social transformation” in a war context) but also in its structure: a chronological presentation in chapters subdivided in thematic and biographical sections, accompanied by short case-studies (often with resource to extended quotations of a single source) in text boxes and, most particularly, the option to punctuate the text with pertinent chengyu, Chinese idioms often formed by four characters.

As with the abovementioned volume The Chinese People at War, and a previous tome by the author on China’s Republic, China’s Civil War is part of the ‘New Approaches to Asian History’, a series of books by Cambridge University Press intended as introductions for students. As such, this volume is not conceived as a thorough historiographical reappraisal of the Civil War based on archival sources. It differs from Frank Dikötter’s recent work The Tragedy of Liberation, which also covered the civil war before concentrating on the first years of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Instead, Lary’s book synthesises a myriad of published materials and provides a general overview of some major issues of the social history of the war. It draws from some of the historiography in English and Chinese and from a variety of memoirs and oral histories from intellectuals, diplomats, missionaries, soldiers, overseas Chinese, and others, hailing from the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the United States, Britain, France, or Canada. An interesting use of artistic works as sources, from novels to films, is also made. Rejecting Marxist and postmodernist theoretical frameworks for this topic, Lary saw trauma theory as the most useful to analyse the social experiences of this period of modern Chinese history.

In the introductory chapter, the author places the Chinese civil war of 1945-49 within a national and transnational context of civil wars, including a brief comparison with Russia’s civil war in the early twentieth century. It also pinpoints the start of the ‘long Civil War’ in China in 1927, stating that the main difference between the two opposing forces, the Chinese Nationalist Party/Guomindang (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was ideology. The focus on the book however, is the ‘four-year Civil War’ between 1945 and 1949, where overt military confrontation was more widespread. Ultimately, Lary states, the “outcome of the war was decided not in an ideological struggle, but by soldiers on the battlefields,” while a “propaganda struggle for the hearts and minds of key elements of the Chinese population” took place. The CCP won both fights.

The introduction also presents some of the issues that the volume will explore, such as social disintegration and transformation manifested in family separations, economic chaos or the shifting status of women. The first chapter on the “social background to the Civil War” established a necessary link with the Resistance War against Japan (1937-1945). Indeed, the author’s choice of dating the Civil War from 1945 is itself a statement on the continuous reality of conflict and of the deep scars that did not heal after the Second World War officially ended in 1945. During the conflict with Japan, the “extended family had lost much of its force and could no longer be relied on for financial help” and the “old circles of trust […] had lost their viability”. After the war ended, “a tidal wave of confiscation throughout the once-occupied regions” alienated many from the GMD. One of the key issues that emerge from the book is the role of youth, many of whom had known only war while growing up, and how they were successfully mobilised by the CCP.

The second to sixth chapters detail in chronological order the unfolding events of the civil war between the GMD and the CCP from the campaigns in Manchuria until the establishment of the PRC in 1949. Although some attention is paid to military and economic aspects, these are mentioned mainly to detail their effects on the social fabric, from the dislocation of soldiers to provinces far from their home to how the effects on inflation were more felt in the urban areas than the rural areas controlled by the CCP where “subsistence economies made the economic crisis less severe”. The author focuses on many different social experiences of the conflict, from idealistic students to left-behind elders, from women to orphans, from foreign observers to alleged ‘traitors.’ Many passages deal with the situation in Taiwan and Hong Kong, notably the repression suffered by the Taiwanese in and after the ‘2-28 Incident’ in 1947—an uprising in Taiwan against the GMD administration that started in February 1947 and was brutally suppressed, initiating a long period of ‘White Terror’ in the island—which was, for Lary, “a deliberate, and, in the short run successful, attempt to destroy or silence the Taiwanese intelligentsia.” Other sections detail how the relocation of many people and businesses to Hong Kong during the civil war was an important factor in the city’s post-war economic success. Although only glancing over the international dimension of the Civil War, with its links to the two great Cold War powers, Lary amply treats the war in a context of ‘Greater China’, explaining clearly how events on the Chinese mainland reverberated in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Chinese communities overseas (Macau is also alluded to, but only briefly). The author estimates that “several million people had left China by the end of 1949, fleeing on their own or with the GMD.” Between one and two million headed with the Nationalists to the island of Taiwan while, according to the author, in the last half of 1949 as many as a million people went to Hong Kong where the authorities “allowed the refugees to stay, seeing […] that these people would help to build the future prosperity of the colony.”

If the Civil War transformed Chinese society, how were its vicissitudes experienced by those living in mainland China and beyond once the nationwide military conflict was over? The seventh and eight chapters delve into the outcomes of the war in general, and social changes in particular, from the early 1950s until today. Going through roughly half a century of Chinese history in some forty pages risks leaving many important issues untreated, and although some major issues are well summarised, there is a looser sense of chronology that only gives an introduction to very complex dynamics. The conclusion, while continuing the assessment of the outcomes of the conflict, also briefly touches upon larger themes such as memory and identity, with some ideas that could be taken as starting points for further studies (for example, “art and memory”, “trauma and ghosts”). However, one of the great merits of this book is to transmit what the author sees as the “sadness of much of modern history [that] has no real place in official history.” This is best accomplished when individual stories, both from well-known political and intellectual figures and from unknown citizens, are used to illustrate the real impact that warfare and political changes had on their personal and family lives. These will certainly make compelling reading to anyone interested in modern China.

Despite the great amount of interesting data provided, the book would have benefited from a more thorough revision. Occasional spelling confusions occur, such as the rendering of Wang Jingwei’s wife name as both “Chen Bijun” and “Chen Pijun” or the of the pinyin romanisation of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s film Beiqing chengshi as “Beijing chengshi” and its translation as both “City of Sorrows” and “City of Sadness”, including separate entries in the index. The various illustrations that enrich the book lack any reference to their sources. The author’s engaging style successfully engrosses the reader but some absolute statements should be treated with a degree of caution, such as Lary’s suggestion that “GMD agents were thugs rather than ideologues, capable of brutality but without vision” or that “The most devoted revolutionary couple were Zhou Enlai, the most handsome of men, and his homely wife Deng Yingchao,” and the idea that “the implicit ban on intermarriage [between mainland soldiers] with native Taiwanese was upheld by both sides.”

The Chinese Civil War did not really end in 1949. A peace treaty was never signed and military confrontations in the Taiwan Strait existed for years. As Lary explains throughout the book, families remained separated for decades, until visits to mainland China became easier from the late 1970s onwards. The recent meeting in Singapore of the top political figures in the PRC and Taiwan has raised more questions that it provided answers for the complex echoes of this topic in the present. The author’s portrait of the conflict’s effects on Chinese society at times makes a few sweeping generalisations, but its humanistic style is a praiseworthy endeavour. Without losing sight of a degree of empathy, even admiration, for those at the centre of her book, Diana Lary places human suffering in China at the core of the history of the Civil War, highlighting its relevance for the study of twentieth-century China and showing how some of its issues remain relevant today.

Helena F.S. Lopes is reading for a DPhil in History at St Antony’s College, Oxford.

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The Everyman and His Attachments Wed, 25 Nov 2015 13:55:38 +0000 Shivani Radhakrishnan








Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Russia, 2014

When writing about Russia, we often resort to elegy for a fallen, or at best, falling nation. The problem with such elegies is that the Russia to which we bid farewell is more of an archetype than an actual country. As Nabokov’s Pnin describes it, it becomes increasingly difficult to see how Russia could be any more than just “a sad stylized toy, a bauble found in the attic, a crystal globe which you shake to make a soft luminous snowstorm inside over a minuscule fir tree and log cabin of paper mache.”

Nowadays, the critique of contemporary Russia is often framed in terms of a nation that is riddled both with bureaucracy and unfair process. In this Russia, the individual’s battles against institutions are lost long before they begin. As critics would have it, Leviathan is yet another film of this genre: a Russian everyman, Kolya, is trapped in an administrative jungle and we can do little more than watch his futile attempts to stand against a corrupt system. This take on both Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan and today’s Russia, however, misses something important: the distance between the everyman and the society he wages war against is imagined. The everyman is a part of his society. This, of course, does not mean that social critique is impossible. But it shows that social critique needs to begin without thinking that we can talk in the abstract about what is good for individuals away from the constitutive social relations in which they find themselves.

Leviathan‘s plot is uncomplicated. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is Zvyagintsev’s everyday hero: a self-employed mechanic who lives in the Russian arctic with his younger wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and son. They own a seaside home that has been passed down through his family for generations, a fact that even passing familiarity with Russian real estate markets suggests is unique. Wilful Kolya is used to having things his own way. In one of the earliest scenes, he refuses to help a policeman with a car repair on demand. It is immediately clear that Kolya takes great pleasure in leaving the bureaucrat feeling both unnerved and defenceless. “He didn’t like that very much,” Kolya remarks. It is a refreshing change from what we expect and eventually see: Kolya’s hopeless attempts to achieve justice in a callous system.

Strong-willed Kolya is in an embittered battle over his family’s property, which the rotten mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) is in the process of seizing. Mister Mayor looks a bit like a Tammany Hall caricature of the corrupt politician—on screen, his flaws spill out just as he does in his ill-fitting dress shirt. If there is an urban sophisticate in the film, it is Kolya’s friend and Moscow lawyer, Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichekov), who is enlisted to help him navigate the court process. Courtesy of some political bigwigs in Moscow, Dmitri sets out to blackmail Vadim. Dmitri, however, is not quite our Mr. Smith in Washington, and after he and Lilya embark on a brief affair, all ends in tragedy.

Yet critics have ignored the deep-rooted moral ambivalence that redeems Zvyagintsev’s latest film. Victims of injustice are often, too, its perpetrators. We cannot simply step outside of our social relations to critique institutions as being unjust. As Zvyagintsev would have it, no one is beyond moral reproach. While Leviathan’s plot is straightforward, its moral outlook is not. Leviathan is a harsh appraisal of post-Soviet Russia, but even its heroes belong to this Russia. Any criticism of the state is to some extent self-criticism. The film is not about the banal conflict between the individual and the system, as many reviewers would have it, because the individual is unavoidably a part of the system. It is for this reason that Zvyagintsev refuses to exonerate his heroes. Even the most noble characters in the film—Kolya, Lilya, Dmitri—are flawed, sharing in the common nature that characterises the film’s sometimes exaggerated villains and callous institutions. Even if Vadim and the legal system are caricatured, Lilya, Kolya and Dmitri aren’t immune to the mayor or the institution’s vices. Kolya is easily provoked, Lilya is unempathetic, and Dmitri prone to exploit.

These flawed characters are part of the Russian director’s characteristic theodicy, best voiced by a policeman’s warning in response to a child playing out in the derelict landscapes of the Barents. The policeman tells the child’s mother not to worry about her child who has wandered off, as after all, “man is the most dangerous animal in the forest.” Whether Zvyagintsev’s sombre portrayal of human nature is attributable ultimately to the state of nature or to theological doctrine, however, is left open-ended by the film just as much as its title. Exploring man’s dark attributes, a preoccupation of Zvyagintsev’s debut masterpiece, The Return (2003), means that moral ambivalence turns up both in people and institutions. And when institutions go wrong, they inherit and magnify flaws already inherent in all human beings, be they heroes or villains. It is not just that the individual, in this case Kolya, is in a morally precarious situation when negotiating his actions in a distant and imperfect system. The way that institutions have failed him means that making good moral choices in his own seemingly individual life is next to impossible.

However, things are not unidirectional, with institutions affecting the people within them. We, too, bring our flaws to societies: the consequences of our apparently individual moral choices, multiple and unforeseeable, are played out and magnified in systems. The flaws of bureaucracy do not arise from nowhere. Hardened, insensitive, and exploitative, the system plays out the collective imperfections of people like Kolya, Lilya, and Dmitri, even while it also exacerbates these very attributes. But whether it is even possible to have just citizens, let alone just societies, is the very thing that Zvyaginstev calls into question. By thinking about people as embedded in societies, with institutional and individual flaws feeding into each other, Zvyaginstev’s favoured targets—in particular the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church—are not uniquely culpable.

In shifting the focus from our moral and social landscape to critiques of the Kremlin and the Church, critics have reduced Zvyagintsev to a filmmaker less talented than he really is. Admittedly, critics’ superficial viewing of Leviathan is not entirely groundless. At its weakest, Zvyaginstev seems to lose sight of his more interesting project: dissolving the way that people talk about the individual and the institutional as though they are neatly separable. While his criticisms of contemporary Russia are far from unsupported, they risk appearing heavy-handed and unsubtle. Zvyagintsev’s take-downs of the corrupt Church and Russian political system are far from new; the director inherits widespread Russian cynicism about the seemingly odd alliance. Just several decades after repression of the Church in Soviet Russia, the strengthening of ties between the Church hierarchy and the Kremlin is remarkable. Patriarch Kirill, for instance, has described the Putin era as a “miracle of God” and openly criticised the president’s opponents. In light of this, Vadim’s clerical advisor, who all but goads the mayor on to further injustices, looks just more like the archetype that we already imagine, pandering to those with political power. Here Zvyagintsev misses an opportunity to address the way that religious and political structures make it more likely that our individual flaws are expressed and that these structural problems are likely to stem from our own blemishes in the first place.

Similarly grating are Leviathan‘s thinly veiled references to the Pussy Riot, one of few anti-government protests familiar to western audiences. Near the movie’s close, for instance, a bishop’s sermon laments that “blasphemy is called prayer,” an allusion clearly directed at the protest group’s now-infamous performance in a Moscow cathedral. Even less subtly, a television grey screen in a hotel room flashes a headline about Pussy Riot. If Zvyagintsev isn’t going to engage with the state of dissent in Russia more seriously, these moments in the film feel gratuitous. Yet, at times, it is easy to focus on these moments, losing sight of Zvyagintsev’s much more interesting moral contribution: dissolving the dichotomy between the individual and the institutional.

Thankfully, the reception of Zvyagintsev’s film itself reminds us that the real relationships between the individual, the government, and religion—even in contemporary Russia—turn out to be more complicated than we may think. In spite of its unabashed critique of the Russian ruling elite, Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan was chosen as Russia’s nomination for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Russian director, too, has an ambivalent relationship to his home country. Zvyagintsev has vowed that, even considering the problems facing Russia, he won’t leave. And if the director really was interested in making a film with the primary aim of confronting power in Russia, accepting over a third of the film’s funding from the Russian Ministry of Culture would seem to be a strange way of going about this. Surely, the funds would have constrained the depth of the critique.

Both Leviathan‘s content and its reception resist easy resolution. While there is room to critique Russia, to place all the blame on clergy and bureaucrats like Vadim would be to ignore that the perpetrators of injustice, too, are part of social structures that incentivise such behaviour. And, conversely, we can’t critique the Church or the Kremlin without thinking about how these institutions have membership that consists of real people. This brings us back to Dmitri, who claims that everything that happens is not the fault of any particular party or institution, as after all, “everybody is guilty of something.” No one has clean hands. And Dmitri continues, “even if we confess, the law says confession is not proof of guilt. You’re innocent until proven otherwise. But who’s going to prove anything? And to whom? No one is blameless.” Not institutions, certainly. But also not Kolya, not Lilya, not Dmitri, and not even Zvyagintsev.

Shivani Radhakrishnan is reading for a PhD in philosophy at Columbia University. She completed her BPhil in philosophy at Linacre College, Oxford

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Accumulating Capital Tue, 24 Nov 2015 09:00:20 +0000 Dominic Davies

Red Rosa cover

Kate Evans, edited by Paul Buhle
Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg
Verso Books, 2015
224 pages
ISBN: 9781784780999

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg is the latest contribution from Kate Evans, the author and activist known as ‘cartoon Kate’, and with a little research it is unsurprising that this has been commissioned and published by the self-confessedly radical publishing house Verso Books. Red Rosa is a confluence of two recent trajectories pursued by Verso in recent months. The first is Verso’s ‘Graphic Non-fiction Reading List’, reviewed here earlier this year, which was launched with an accompanying blog post and a whole host of new titles, of which Red Rosa is just one. The other trajectory that Evans’s graphic biography slots neatly into is Verso’s recent response to growing interests in the radical Marxist thinker’s extensive writings from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in both academic and leftist circles. This has included Verso’s publication of a three-volume edition of Luxemburg’s Complete Works, broken down into her Letters (2011), and more recently her Economic Writings: Volume 1 and Volume 2 (November 2014 and May 2015 respectively). Indeed, Verso also published Norman Geras’s The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg in June of this year, and organised a collaborative event, along with The Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung New York Office and The New School, called Rosa Remix: New Takes on a Long Time Classic, which took place in August 2015. The extent to which Verso is simply attempting to capitalise on the hundredth anniversary of the publication of Luxemburg’s masterpiece, The Accumulation of Capital, will vary depending on your cynicism and sense of irony. But there can be no doubt that this renewed interested is timely and warranted: in the light of her extensive writings on the globalisation of capital, her advocacy of democratic socialism, her theorising of spontaneous resistance movements, and her anti-war activism, Luxemburg’s work has more to teach us about the world we live in today than ever before.

Red Rosa emphasises throughout the importance of Luxemburg’s legacy. ‘It is fifty years before the word “globalisation” will be coined’, an anonymous narratorial voice informs us: ‘Luxemburg formulates its mathematical proof. She uncovers the engine that drives the process inexorably onward.’ This emphasis on the remarkable prescience and continuing relevance of Luxemburg’s writings continues on the next page: ‘It will also be half a century before we hear the term “military-industrial complex”, yet Luxemburg makes explicit the inextricable tie between capitalism and militarism.’ In between these authorial comments, Luxemburg’s own sentences are quoted sporadically and incompletely in abridged citations that justify the economic and political arguments that the graphic biography is identifying. The differentiation between the voices of biographer and biographical subject are indicated by the font in which the text is written. As a brief preface informs the reader: ‘Italicised passages of text are direct quotes from Luxemburg’s writings; where these have been edited for brevity the quotations have been reproduced in full in the notes at the end of the book.’ Though this is a common and completely reasonable technique employed by comic narrative, the print itself is aesthetically unsatisfactory. The narrator’s voice is, for some reason, printed in bland Times New Roman which sits uncomfortably alongside the particularly curvy, caricatured drawings. The only reason for this font decision that this reviewer can conceive of is haste—it’s much more time-efficient to type out and reprint text in a computer-based font, rather than to pencil out hand-written text. And this haste rekindles the cynical perspective mentioned above: perhaps there was a scramble, during the production process, to make sure that this graphic biography was published in The Accumulation of Capital’s anniversary year, thus coinciding neatly with Verso’s dual marketing campaigns around graphic fiction and Luxemburg reinvigoration, and boosting the sales of both of these collections.

Image 1

The italicised text is used mostly to explain the kernels of Luxemburg’s thought through a series of highly selective quotations that drastically simplify her ideas. Though the original passages from which these words are taken are written out in full at the back of the book (resulting in an appendix of some forty pages of lengthy quotations), this need to include lengthy text to supplement, or even to justify, the graphics, might be seen in fact to undermine them. Comics are able to convey simple ideas, the book seems to say, but to get to the real meat of Luxemburg’s revolutionary thought readers still need the complex theoretical words on the page. This relegates the illustrations to an equivalent of the ‘graphic introductions’ that cover all sorts of thinkers and concepts, from Hegel and Sartre to Psychoanalysis and Artificial Intelligence. Undoubtedly graphic introductions such as these can be very useful for getting a basic sense of complex academic theories and concepts, but because Red Rosa is published and marketed as a ‘graphic biography’ rather than an introduction to Luxemburg’s thought, the work is in danger of infantilising the comics form, a stereotype that so many artists and critics have been trying to deconstruct and dispel in recent decades. Throughout the biography, the graphics function only as visual metaphors that simplify the concepts the narrative is trying to explain. Early on, for example, Rosa sits at a dinner table and uses the table salt, cutlery and a loaf of bread to demonstrate Marx’s notions of use, exchange and surplus value. This is not a book for fans of Luxemburg’s writings who are intrigued by what a graphic representation of her life might add to their reading of her. Rather, it is just another introductory text that serves as a beginner’s guide to her thought. The cynic might even wonder whether the graphic narrative is actually designed to entice readers into purchasing Verso’s other recent Luxemburg-oriented publications, rather than offering a genuine extension of and reflection on them. The problem is perhaps rooted in the comic’s confusion about what exactly it is trying to be. If it really were a ‘graphic biography’, then why does it feel the need to spend so much time actually focusing on Luxemburg’s development of Marxist concepts? As the below excerpt demonstrates, the biographical narrative on occasion even appears to intrude on these explanations, which become the prime subject of the comic’s content.

Red Rosa page 2

However, the comic still has some admirable qualities. The striking central splash page, reproduced below, which is also chosen for the biography’s front cover, superbly visualises the trauma of the First World War and how it weighed on Luxemburg’s revolutionary conscience. The comic also at one point explores the self-reflexive potential that the giants of the form, from Art Spiegelman to Joe Sacco, have pioneered. Roughly midway through, Evans herself, who has thus far remained elusive and omniscient, a blandness signified by the generic Times New Roman font, enters the image sequence on the page (though only for three panels). ‘Please forgive this authorial intrusion into the narrative’, Evans writes, depicting her own face—presumably a self-portrait—peering through a door in the back of the panel, ‘but is any of this still relevant today?’ Curiously enough, when we can see the omniscient biographer on the page, both the Times New Roman font and Luxemburg’s italicised quotations disappear to be replaced with a conventional hand-written comic script that gels more productively with the cartoon-like drawings. Evans points out that ‘it’s still the same […] Luxemburg’s basic proposition remains valid. And if capitalism is mathematically impossible, how come I’m standing here wearing clothes made in China? And how were you able to buy this book?’ In these three panels, the author actually reflects on the reaction of the cynical reader, showing how a comic about a tradition of anti-capitalist thought still relies on capitalism for its production, publication, marketization and circulation. This meta-textual insight into its own paradoxical engagement with its material is the critically richest section of the book and proves that, despite its faults, it’s not entirely unaware of the pitfalls of its own project. In this reviewer’s opinion, however, it’s a great shame that this narrative trajectory lasts just half a page, never to return. The reader is offered a glimpse of how reflexive—if not subversive—the comics form can be, before this is tantalisingly snatched away and we are returned to the bland, Times New Roman advertisement for the other titles in Verso’s ‘Luxemburg’ range.

Red Rosa splash page

Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in English at the University of Oxford, where he also completed his DPhil in March 2015.

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Wrap Up the Week: PhDs are depressing, ISIS is evil, Anne Frank is a coauthor, internet companies are evil – but we do like Darwin Sun, 15 Nov 2015 20:29:08 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Jennifer Walker, ‘There’s an awful cost to getting a PhD that no one talks about’, Quartz.

2. Anonymous, ‘The Mystery of ISIS’, The New York Review of Books.

3. Doreen Carvajal, ‘Anne Frank’s Diary Gains “Co-Author” in Copyright Move’, The New York Times.

4. Ben East, ‘The Internet is Not the Answer – review’, The Guardian.

5. Gillian Beer, ‘The Impact of On the Origin of Species, OUPblog.

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Wrap Up the Week: Not Reviewing, Not Reading Before Banning, Not Helpful to be Insane, Not Actually About Halloween Costumes, and Not Of This Time Sun, 08 Nov 2015 23:58:07 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents Wrap Up the Week, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. Ijeoma Oluo, ‘Why I Won’t Write a Review of “Suffragette”, The Stranger. The slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’ is only one example of the way in which the history of any and all coloured people is negated and left out in this film, and this reviewer refused to play along.

2. David K. Shipler, ‘Ban Before Reading’, The New York Times. Shipler’s work The Working Poor: Invisible in America was banned from a US high school curriculum by people who had not read his work, and this ban was reported on by people who had no idea of its contents either.

3. Euan L. Davidson, ‘Music-making and the myth of the tortured genius’, The Guardian. The artist as a tortured genius: it is a very familiar trope, but is it accurate? And in those cases where an artist is mentally ill, is it truly the case that their mental illness improves the quality of their work? Davidson argues that this stigma is incorrect and may be harmful.

4. Aaron Z. Lewis, ‘What’s Really Going On at Yale’, Medium. One Yale senior gives a more contextualised explanation of the Yale protest, emphasising that serious issues concerning racial discrimination have been going on for years: this is not only about the professor who condoned wearing racially insensitive Halloween costumes, or the frat that only let white women attend their party.

5. Jason Schmitt, ‘Academic Journals: The Most Profitable Obsolete Technology in History’, Huffington Post. A slightly older article which gained a lot of new traction after the popular social media outlet Shit Academics Say opened a blog this week, and featured Schmitt’s post as their first entry. Ironically enough, the message behind this 2014 post is far from obsolete.

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Nein zum Englischen Modell Thu, 05 Nov 2015 09:00:24 +0000 Callum Seddon

Das Reboot cover

Raphael Honigstein
Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World
Yellow Jersey Press, 2015
£18.99 (hardback)
288 Pages
ISBN: 9780224100120

The object chosen by curator Neil McGregor to conclude last year’s British Museum exhibition Germany: Memories of a Nation was a replica of Germany’s 2014 football kit, representing the national team’s success at the World Cup held in Brazil that year. In an exhibition that brought together a bible inscribed by Luther, the Bauhaus-inspired gates from Buchenwald, and fragments from the Berlin Wall, football seemed like a strange place to end. But it made a crucial point about the formation of contemporary Germany’s national identity: the pride and confidence in the triumphant Deutscher Fußball Bund (DFB) team, and therefore in the nation at large, was seen as a fitting conclusion to McGregor’s reflection on how Germany had, even in a relatively short period of time, changed dramatically in the way it perceived itself. Earlier in 2014, McGregor spoke in Oxford about the exhibition. One of the first slides he discussed depicted German fans welcoming the triumphant DFB team at the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin. For many Germans, he said, this may have been their first time singing the national anthem with an attitude of Selbstbewusstsein, rather than awkwardness. Raphael Honigstein translates this term for us in Das Reboot: ‘In German, confidence and its opposite, self-consciousness, are the same word: Selbstbewusstsein. We don’t see the contradiction – to be aware of yourself is to be confident’. As Honigstein points out, however, that earlier reluctance to show support for the DFB may have really just stemmed from the fact that, at the turn of the millennium, the German national team was something of a national embarrassment: boring, defensive and uninspired football in which it was hoped a match would be won with lucky headers.

Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World examines the significance of Germany’s World Cup success in greater detail. Honigstein, a journalist for The Guardian and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, has previously offered a German’s perspective of English football and culture in his first book Englischer Fußball. Das Reboot focuses exclusively on German matters. The book shifts between past and (near) present, switching between each stage of the World Cup and a broader account of the long-term planning of the DFB: the establishing of a network of regional youth training academies (Stützpunkte), and the implementation of new training methods and technologies. It describes how, under Jürgen Klinsmann and later Joachim Löw, the Nationalmannschaft began to play a more exciting, effective, fast-paced kind of football.

The historical chapters, interspersed between chapters devoted to each World Cup match, attempt to make the connection between past and present more apparent. It can feel oddly jarring to move from the fast-paced analysis of individual games to the narration of dry details, such as the balancing of youth players’ academic and sporting education. These clashes in tone and tempo are particularly present when – without prior warning – Honigstein suddenly drops out of the picture entirely, only to be replaced by former DFB players (in one chapter, Thomas Hitzlsperger recounts his experiences at the World Cup in Germany in 2006, and in another, Arne Friedrich describes South Africa 2010).

On the other hand, this structure can be effective. This is noticeable when Honigstein narrates the World Cup-winning goal: Mario Götze’s volley past Argentina’s Sergio Romero. Only a few pages earlier, Honigstein had described the role of a contraption called the Footbonaut on the DFB’s training, a 14 by 14 Astroturf cage that unpredictably fires balls at players, who have to quickly control and shoot the ball through a series of small targets in quick succession. It becomes clear – even if ultimately impossible to prove – that Götze’s winning goal was precisely the kind of action that the Footbonaut tries to relentlessly drill into its trainees.

Das Reboot is very much a book of two halves. On the one hand, it is a ‘close reading’ of one team’s highly successful international campaign. But on the other, it is a story that offers insight into the relationship between football and national identity. To return to that concept of Selbstbewusstsein, it’s easy to see why there is so much confidence in the current state of German football, at both the international, and league level. The confidence in the collective abilities of a team rather than a simple injection of money (discussed by Honigstein in his account of the unlikely rise of TSG Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga), is one that makes for a stark contrast with today’s Premier League clubs. As the banner of some recent FC Bayern München fans recently declared (in response to the injection of yet more cash into the English Premier League): Nein zum Englischen Modell.

Callum Seddon is a D.Phil student in English at Merton College.

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