The Oxonian Review http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp Tue, 03 Mar 2015 07:19:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Deconstructing Consent http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/deconstructing-consent/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/deconstructing-consent/#comments Tue, 03 Mar 2015 07:19:28 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25926 Laura Ludtke

Citizenfour
Directed by Laura Poitras
Praxis Films, Participant Media, and HBO Films
Now available on 4oD

Disconnect your phone (or leave it in the fridge). Use a typewriter (or handwrite) from now on. Never use a computer—it always has the potential to be compromised. Conduct sensitive (or all) conversations in person, in outdoor spaces. These may have, until recently, seemed like instructions from a how-to manual from a recent spy thriller; however, they are currently the only ways you can ensure your conversations remain private in the world of mass surveillance revealed by the American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Citizenfour, Laura Poitras documents her initial contact with Snowden, their early communications, their meeting in the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, the carefulness with which the first revelations from the cache of leaked files were reported, and the escalation of events which culminated in Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong and his subsequent taking of refuge in Russia. Snowden’s hope, which he confides to Poitras, is that his actions will spur others to similar action. The implications from the documents Snowden entrusted to Poitras, Glen Greenwald and other journalists, continue to make headlines in the UK and around the world. Only a month ago, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) ruled that “the intelligence sharing rules between the NSA and GCHQ […] governing their mass surveillance program violated UK human rights laws because they were kept secret for so long.” This is a triumph, not only for the advocacy group Privacy International and its allies, but for the UK public at large.

There has long been a contention amongst admirers and scholars of dystopian fiction as to who envisaged a more terrifying authoritarian future: George Orwell, with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), or Aldous Huxley, with Brave New World (1932). In 2009, Stuart McMillen produced a webcomic illustrating Neil Postman’s poignant Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), updating it for a 21st century audience. Postman’s book-length essay proposes that Huxley’s dystopian novel, in which “what we love will ruin us”, had proved more correct. Pairing quotations from Postman’s essay with images of 21st century life, McMillen contends that our culture of continuous consumption (online shopping, reality television, mass production, Facebook, buzzfeed et al.) perpetuated by technological advances (computers, smart phones, wifi, 3G, et al.) has transformed us into a population more likely to vote for an X-Factor contestant than for a candidate in a political election. This political disengagement has been fuelled by our desire to feel pleasure rather than, as Orwell suggested, by the infliction of pain, by a culture of fear, and by a society that is self-surveilling and self-oppressing. For, though many of us may not be aware that the technologies which bring us the most delight (or, as the case may be, productivity) are used by surveillance agencies to collect information (data items) about us, it has become a necessity of participating in 21st century life that we must resign ourselves to the inevitability of such an exchange.

The question of whether such a knowing resignation makes us complicit relies on a false choice, as most of us feel powerless to protest this status quo. This is the dilemma not one faced by Winston Smith in Orwell’s novel: he wants privacy but cannot opt out of surveillance. His assumption that the telescreens do not continue to transmit information when they appear to be off is a fallacious one. (Be warned, cameras on your phones and computers can be similarly appropriated). His belief that darkness can protect him from Big Brother only facilitates his thoughtcrimes. We, on the other hand, are aware (or, at least, should be by now) that our privacy is being compromised. And yet, this awareness has become a sort of complacency, in which our resignation seems to have inured us against a galling and unprecedented contravention of our rights to privacy. Jonathan Crary, in his recent 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep (2013), explains how this has come to pass: for, “[a]mid the mass amnesia sustained by the culture of global capitalism, images have become one of the many depleted and disposable elements that, in their intrinsic achievability, end up never being discarded, contributing to an ever more congealed and futureless present.” Indeed, for Crary, our failure to see the world “stems from a damaged relationship to the past and to memory. We are swamped with images and information about the past and recent catastrophes—but there is also a growing incapacity to engage these traces in ways that could move beyond them, in the interests of a common future.”

That is a concept Orwell explored in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The dystopian world of the novel is marked by a sort of pastlessness that, when coupled with an absence of individual autonomy and the paucity of collective memory and shared histories, reinforces the systematic oppression and tyranny that encourage it. The instability of memory—not being able to keep track of the current enemy, not knowing what year it is or how old one is, not remembering whether or how the party’s policies have changed—is the ultimate product of the Ministry of Truth, for it encourages individuals to destabilise their own history, reality, and certainty in order to survive. When confronted by this complicity, Winston Smith repeats what is, perhaps, the party’s most sinister slogan: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”. For this reason, Poitras’ documentary, which was recently awarded a BAFTA and an Oscar for its achievements, is important because it reminds us, very effectively, of what is at stake for us all and what very significant and personal risks were taken by those involved in making public the scale and nature of the mass surveillance being perpetrated on us. It is also is an act of resistance, for as more people view the film and internalise its message, it becomes more difficult for governments and officials to deny what it reveals.

Nevertheless, this resistance is not without its challenges, as it is impossible for the individual to keep the score of who has done what and why. As Noam Chomsky details in Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media (1992), the documentary based on Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), he relies on a team of researchers reading newspapers from around the world to help him disentangle the web of disinformation that is the media. This has only become exasperated in the last two decades as the news cycle has a decreasing half-life, as certain media conglomerations become increasingly politicised under the guise of increasing profits by appealing to their customers, as the precarity of the underclasses grows with every cut in public spending, and as the outcome-focussed education system discourages the acquisition of critical thinking skills. In such a system, how can the individual ever hope to perform the necessary risk-benefit analysis, weighing privacy against a pretence of security?

As Poitras makes clear in her film, the individual is no longer asked to make such an analysis, nor are their elected representatives in government (with some exceptions for those who have a high-enough level security clearance). There has been erosion of oversight and, in many cases even the legal mechanisms for ensuring rights to privacy have not been infringed are applied broadly rather than precisely. This erosion is reflected in the subtle shift of focus in the documentary from domestic surveillance in post-9/11 America to Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance. While the film still features interviews with William Binney and Jacob Applebaum, there is a notable lack of emphasis on Julian Assange and Wikileaks. This is a decision which is both aesthetically and ideologically appealing, as the narrative of Snowden’s self-sacrifice directly contravenes that of the surveillance agencies he has so righteously exposed. Snowden’s narrative in Citizenfour should also reopen a much-needed a conversation about consent. If asked and where legally appropriate, would an individual willingly give up his or her privacy in order to secure the safety of his or her fellow citizens? We might feel much safer if we knew that the minimum requirement for the invasion of our privacy was enthusiastic consent rather than tacit compliance. If concerns of national security could be assuaged, would the government be able to explain the purpose (and benefit) of gathering such vast quantities of information about individual citizens without their consent? Perhaps this desire to collect everything is simply the malignant consequence of our global capitalist and consumerist culture. However, we must not forget that the consequences of mass surveillance are not benign. After all, the ultimate goal of surveillance is, at the best, superintendence, or, at the worst, supervision for the purpose of direction or control.

Laura Ludtke is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review. She is a final-year DPhil candidate at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/deconstructing-consent/feed/ 0
In Praise of Emptiness http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-praise-of-emptiness/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-praise-of-emptiness/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 02:20:28 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25570 Alec Siantonas


Peter Unger
Empty Ideas: A Critique of Analytic Philosophy
Oxford University Press, 2014
£29.99 (hardback)
272 pages
ISBN: 9780199330812

By his own lights, Peter Unger has written a book that is full of empty ideas. There are even a few “concretely substantial” ideas, as he calls them. In the main, however, his most interesting ideas are among the empty ones, and that is no accident. The book’s central—but far from its most interesting—idea is that analytic philosophy has largely been trading in empty ideas. This is the substance of the “critique of analytic philosophy” alluded to in the subtitle.

We’ll start with concrete reality. For Unger, concrete reality is roughly the totality of objects possessing causal powers. An electron has the power to repel other electrons, so it’s part of concrete reality; should I possess an immaterial soul with the power to think, that would be part of concrete reality too. An idea is concretely empty if it fails to say anything specific about the way concrete reality is; if it does not imply, for instance, that these particles are repelling rather than attracting each other. Here’s a great idea: any review over 1500 words long is a review-essay. Plausibly, all the concrete objects in the world are arranged in just the same way and possess just the same powers whether such things are review essays or not. No difference in concrete reality is at stake. So my great idea is empty, according to Unger.

Unger thinks that almost every idea advanced by an analytic philosopher is empty: that’s his critique. He spends most of the book examining popular debates within analytic philosophy, revealing the emptiness of the various positions defended therein. He concludes that the discipline is in bad shape indeed. Apart from the analytic insiders whom this book challenges directly, I expect that Unger would describe his ideal reader as a working scientist with little patience for semantic games. The scientists are doing real intellectual work, that is, proposing and assessing concretely substantial ideas, ideas with some import for concrete reality. Analytic philosophers are, as our phantom scientist has always suspected, just playing semantic games. Note that Unger almost certainly would not describe his ideal reader as a working humanist with a keen sense of the contingency of all our modes of thought. This phantom humanist, I’m sure, has her own suspicions about analytic philosophy, but she would probably find Unger’s appeal to concrete reality just as suspect.

I will have a little to say to the phantom humanist later. For now, I voice the suspicions of an analytic insider about Unger’s appeal to concrete reality. There seems to be a mismatch between the way Unger defines “concrete reality” and the use to which he wants to put it. Consider, for example, the question of whether there are composite objects: whether there is, for instance, such a thing as the table in addition to the particles which (supposedly) compose the table. Unger’s NYU colleague, Cian Dorr, denies that there are composite objects. For Unger, this is an empty idea, and plenty of philosophers would sympathise with him here. The problem is that it’s unclear why this idea is an empty one according to Unger’s own account of emptiness. He explicitly includes all material objects “whether simple or not” as constituents of concrete reality. So it seems that Dorr’s idea does have implications for concrete reality after all: it specifies that it lacks some concrete objects, such as tables.

Unger would no doubt say that the only genuine difference in concrete reality is between the case where there are fundamental physical particles arranged “table-wise”, as Dorr would say, and the case where there are not. This is plausible. Given that there are particles so arranged, the further question that so vexes analytic metaphysicians—whether there are tables in addition to the particles—does seem comparatively empty. Still, the question of what makes for such a genuine difference is left open. Assuming that some fix for this problem can be found, however, let’s say we accept Unger’s concrete reality. Once we do so, Unger’s main contention is irresistible. Yes, by Unger’s criterion, most analytic philosophy is empty.

What is easier to resist is the moral that Unger draws from this. For all the care taken to demonstrate the emptiness of various analytic ideas, Unger pays little attention to a rather crucial question: just what is so bad about emptiness? Consider one of the book’s most important case studies, on the question of personal identity. Here, Unger is notably coy. He says that most of the ideas that analytic philosophers have offered about the persistence of persons over time are empty, but he stops short of saying that these are equally empty ideas about my persistence. He has wriggle room here because he denies that I am essentially a person. A general principle about the persistence of persons, therefore, would not have any implications about my persistence. Still, most analytic philosophers have thought of themselves as being essentially persons, and if I were to read, say, Bernard Williams’ ‘The Self and the Future’ without thinking about what would happen to me in the scenarios described, I would have missed the point entirely. So if I start thinking through analytic ideas about the persistence of persons, I’m likely to apply those ideas to my own case. And if those are empty ideas about the persistence of persons, they’re presumably empty ideas about my persistence, too.

My interest in the future, however, is not exhausted by interest in the future of Unger’s concrete reality. I’m crucially interested in my future. I don’t just want to know the way that concrete reality will be; I want to know where, if anywhere, I will be within concrete reality. Moreover, I am not entirely selfish: I am interested in minds in general, in meaning, knowledge, value. This, then, is how I would resist Unger’s pessimism. Instead of specifying how it is with concrete reality, analytic philosophy tries to identify where, within a fixed concrete reality, certain important phenomena are to be found. This, though strictly empty, remains a thoroughly worthwhile pursuit.

No doubt Unger would object that all this is parochial inquiry into our words and concepts: semantic game-playing. But I use “phenomena” advisedly. There is a concept of precipitation, just as there is a concept of knowledge; knowledge is a phenomenon, no less than precipitation is a phenomenon. The onus is on Unger to explain why philosophers’ talk of knowledge is any more parochial than meteorologists’ talk of precipitation. Presumably, he would fall back on emptiness: when the meteorologist makes a claim about rain, she’s specifying how things are with the concrete reality of the atmosphere. Epistemological claims don’t have concrete consequences in the same way. That appears to be the salient difference.

Be that as it may, we’ve gone round in a circle: nothing illuminating has yet been said about what’s wrong with emptiness. Knowledge, meaning, value (not to mention you and me): these aren’t entirely trivial phenomena. It is worth seeking a theoretical account of such phenomena even if this does not involve delineating ways concrete reality might be. Recall, by contrast, my idea that any book review over 1500 words long is a review essay. Indeed that idea seems trivial, unworthy of serious comment: but that is simply explained by the fact that the review essay is not an important phenomenon (though the more general phenomenon of book reviewing is important!), and not by the emptiness of the idea itself. Emptiness, I submit, is not the flaw that Unger takes it to be.

It’s telling that Unger himself is not content merely to identify various philosophical ideas as empty: he also tries time and again to identify incorrect empty ideas, and to replace them with correct empty ideas. In his discussions of the metaphysics of material objects, these attempts are rather weak. He helps himself to large and controversial assumptions without pausing to consider the rationale of his intellectual opponents. In other areas, however, he provides new and powerful insights. His argument that we are immaterial souls is an inspired piece of philosophical reasoning. Fascinating too are his reflections on the nature of thought, particularly his objections to the view that what we can think about is rigidly determined by our past. The suggestions here demand further reflection, as part of the often “empty” but consistently rewarding process of investigating the phenomena of meaning and thought.

None of this is to say, of course, that analytic philosophy is entirely wonderful, or that it more perfectly participates in the Platonic Form of Enquiry than other disciplines. Merely that Unger’s specific critique is misguided, though welcome in the probing questions it asks of the discipline. One such question is why mainstream analytic philosophy has such scant success in capturing the interest of outsiders. I suspect the main reason is rather a boring one: namely, that analytic philosophy is boring. At least, I can see how someone less enamoured than I am with the practice of analytic philosophy would be bored by its products. Much of it is small-scale, highly specialised, and dauntingly technical. It is, in this respect, like much science.

A brief word on this aspect of the discipline, which I fear the phantom humanist we met above may misunderstand. The fact is that you don’t need to be a Nietzsche or a Wittgenstein—or even a Williams or a Williamson—to make a valuable philosophical contribution. By this I do not mean to insist that every paper in every mainline analytic journal really is a valuable philosophical contribution. Mine is the more limited point that you don’t need to come up with a brilliant idea of your own to be able to comment on the viability of others’ ideas, and that, with the right training, many people can produce useful such comments. Thus the modest, collaborative, and even to some extent the specialised scientific model is quite appropriate for philosophy.

Analytic philosophy is boring and it is empty (at least if you accept Unger’s framework). But on balance, neither of these are serious defects. It’s not a defect that it’s boring: there is a great deal worth saying in philosophy, and it’s unrealistic to expect that everything be said with due care and still sound sexy. It’s not a defect that it’s empty: there are important questions to be asked even once we’ve agreed on what Unger’s concrete reality is like. And this particular book has plenty of ideas, empty and otherwise, that deserve comment.

Alec Siantonas is reading for the BPhil at Oriel College, Oxford.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/in-praise-of-emptiness/feed/ 0
Smudging the Sunset http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/smudging-the-sunset/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/smudging-the-sunset/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 02:15:01 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25865 Sanders Bernstein


Meghan Daum
The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014
$26 (hardback)
244 pages
ISBN: 9780374280444

As a thrice-monthly Los Angeles Times columnist since 2005, Meghan Daum has waged a war over the past nine years against platitudes, truisms, and pieties, writing with the religious ardour of a social critic of the old type, wielding sarcasm and irony, one in each fist. Beginning with her debut collection of personal (and mostly humorous) essays, My Misspent Youth (2001), she has stridently declaimed “our habit of expressing ourselves through the trappings of particular ideas rather than through the substance of those ideas.” When Ariel Castro’s victims reiterated messages of hope after emerging from his dungeon, Daum flambéed the old chestnut that suffering is redemptive. When Sarah Palin called herself a feminist, Daum wrote in her defence that there must be a place for conservative feminists too. When Los Angeles’ mayor claimed “full responsibility” for his extramarital affair, she poked holes in that ubiquitous phrase beloved of politicians and athletes. Yet, under the regular demands of churning out a column, there are lapses. She can be lazy: she put Facebook users on blast for the network’s culture of bragging, and as payoff on Rolling Stone’s coverage of rape at the University of Virginia, wrote that “last I checked, nothing cures idiocy like asking questions.” Even as she dissolves many with her acidic wit, her work ends up precipitating out its own fair share of bromides.

This pattern is little different in The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussion, Daum’s new collection of ten lengthy interlinked personal essays. Growing out of a concern about sentimentality’s place in American culture—as Daum dryly asserts in her introduction, “to reject sentimentality, or even question it, isn’t just uncivilized, it’s practically un-American”—the essays have expanded to investigate the “way human experiences too often come with preassigned emotional responses” and settled upon the things that one (supposedly) cannot say as their core subject. Among these unmentionable subjects are Daum’s anger with her dying mother, her membership in the category of the honorary dyke or “phantom butch”, the futility of serving as a legal foster advocate, her love of Los Angeles, and the illogic of almost dying of a flea bite, an event in which she lost the ability to speak. Yet, as confident and masterful a writer as she is, she offers little to erect in place of the “culture whose discourse is largely rooted in platitudes” that she assails. She takes a sponge to the horizon and leaves behind merely smudges where was once a sunset.

‘Matricide’, the bruising first essay, haunts the entire reading experience. Throwing out the pieties of death narratives—“people who weren’t there like to say that my mother died at home surrounded by loving family”—Daum thrusts the reader into the reality of the grim scene, in which only Daum and her brother are in the apartment, “and he was looking at Facebook and I was reading a profile of Hilary Clinton in the December 2009 issue of Vogue…I heard her gasp. Then nothing more.” Not only her mother’s death comes under the knife; so does the character of her mother and her mother’s mother, against both of whom she harbours an uncomfortable if honest resentment.

Daum’s tone towards her mother is ambivalent, even if her words are damning. Perhaps no condemnation is more total than Daum’s sense “that she simply didn’t know how to be,” an ugly suggestion that death is the thing that her mother was best at. Indeed, only in her mother’s decline does Daum not “merely love her. I actually liked her.” There is no such grace for her grandmother, however. She is a “mean little girl in a sweet old woman’s body” who damaged her mother “on a cellular level.” But Daum’s love emerges for her mother not in any statements of affection (for that would be sentimental), but in her mother’s frequent reappearance within the following essays and small, unremarked-upon actions—Daum’s defence of her mother when verbally abused by her grandmother and her persistent, if nonsensical, checking of her mother’s corpse’s lack of pulse to ensure that she will not be cremated alive (one of her mother’s great fears). There is no false respect, nor is there closure.

But there is also a haunting detachment in Daum’s account. From a place of remove she is able to write such sentences as “the best line in this whole saga goes to my mother’s oncologist, who broke the bad news like this: ‘Our hope for this treatment was that it would give you more time. Some of that time has now passed.’” One can’t help but feel that Daum includes a discussion of reincarnation because her mother’s comment, “I don’t want to be a baby again”, highlights the irony that her mother was in “adult diapers. Women’s Depends, size small.” Daum’s pretensions to “getting real” seem only that. The artfulness of her work is not compelling enough to make one forget her shaping. It merely seems to be animated by a vengeful consciousness.

However, this pathologically honest voice, this oddly distant “I narrator”, brutal though it is, retains a tight hold on the reader even as the subsequent moments of callousness, of which there are quite a few, are magnified. In ‘The Best Possible Experience’, an essay that discusses her dating life, nearly devoid of affection for her partners, she admits that

what I was about, was the fieldwork aspect…I was looking for experiences, for characters, for people who paid other people to chant and beat drums while they lay on massage tables wearing flashing LED sunglasses. I regarded my love interests less as potential life mates than as characters in movie I happened to have wandered into.

Even while divulging her disproportionate, “schmaltzy” love of dogs in ‘The Dog Exception’, she conceptualizes the dog as furniture: “because their love actually becomes absorbed into the architecture of your home, their deaths can be more devastating than even the death of a close friend or family member.” Of course, Daum is astute enough to recognize this, and she prognosticates at the start about those readers who will find “a few disclosures about my interior life…depressing or even alarming.” She is too committed to her craft to hold these details back, declaring she “wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Yet the details that she chooses to dwell upon are not merely admissions of an unappealing internal life. Instead, they reveal the kernels of Daum’s literary consciousness, the lens upon life that the essays offer, the choices made about of inclusion and exclusion that every writer wrestles with. Daum thinks the sentimental is easy and to face up to the truth is hard. But to fixate upon the ugliness of life is no less of a choice than to examine the wondrous and beautiful. The essays offer their own myths rooted in Daum’s sensibility, her own “personal mythology.” She provides morals, as at the end of ‘Diary of a Coma’, the last essay of the collection, and one of the strongest:

I am no wiser or more evolved than I was before. There is no epiphany or revelation or aha moment or big click. There is no redemption. There is no great lesson learned. There is only the unknowable and the unspeakable. There is only the unlikely if ever-present possibility that life is just a string of stories inside a coma. And in this story, I am not a better person. I am the same person. This is a story with a happy ending. Or at least something close enough.

However, Daum’s moral is specious. She has been changed, even as she denies it. She is now a person who has suffered coma, who has approached death. She is now a person who has written about that coma, who has written about near-death. Her insistence on her unfaltering sameness throughout these experiences does not merely refute the myth of suffering’s redemptive qualities, but goes further to deny the significance of experience itself. Even if “life is just a string of stories inside a coma” that does not mean that the stories are unable to imprint themselves upon the comatose brain and effect some change thereafter. If life is not the condition of change—or at least the possibility of change—what, then, for Daum, distinguishes it from death, the ultimate stasis?

An earlier American personal essay collection of last year, The Empathy Exams, by a younger and (hitherto) less accomplished author, Leslie Jamison, offers a ready antidote to Daum’s doxa of detachment. Her writing is immediate and sensuous, if occasionally numbing in its incessant sincerity, its incessant viscerality. Her work seems to gush out of a great wound that cannot be anesthetized. Indeed, many of her essays engage at the intersection of physical and psychological pain—heart surgery, a bone-breaking blow to the face (also requiring surgery), an abortion, real and imagined parasites, ultra-marathon running, anorexia. She feels and feels and feels and is not ashamed of it. In ‘Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, the last essay of her collection, Jamison defends the sentimental as she had earlier done in ‘In Defense of Saccharin(e)’, pleading that the cliché not be discarded:

Pain that gets performed is still pain. Pain turned trite is still pain. I think the charges of cliché and performance offer our closed hearts too many alibis, and I want our hearts to be open. I just wrote that. I want our hearts to be open. I mean it.

Jamison embodies the opposite approach to Daum. Rather than write to eradicate, write to tear down, write against, she writes to rehabilitate, to rediscover, she writes for. If only Daum could find something that she feels similarly about. Because she does write enviably well.

Sanders Bernstein completed a second BA in English language and literature at Merton College, Oxford. He is now reading for a PhD in English literature at the University of Southern California.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/smudging-the-sunset/feed/ 0
The Other Home Front http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-other-home-front/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-other-home-front/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 02:10:35 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25577 Edward Hicks


Jenny Uglow
In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815
Faber & Faber, 2014
£25 (hardback)
752 pages
ISBN: 9780571269525

Before the calamities of the twentieth century supplanted its name and dimmed its horrors, the continental conflicts of 1793 to 1815 were collectively known as the “Great War”. They left a deep scar on the European psyche. The late-Victorian Prime Minister Lord Rosebery described it as “the greatest epoch in history since the coming of Christ.” A sense of the scale of the war is excellently conveyed by Jenny Uglow in this account of Britons living, fighting, and dying during these conflicts. Arranging her account chronologically, she focuses on various different families and individuals—from the forgotten Galton family of gun-makers to Romantic writers such as Scott and Wordsworth—to write a social history of Britain throughout these wars. Already acclaimed as a biographer of Charles II and familiar with this epoch through her account of the Birmingham Lunar Society, Uglow conveys a vivid portrait of a Britain where rich and poor, men and women, city and country dwellers were inexorably drawn into the immense struggle in which the nation was engaged.

In so doing Uglow helps banish the older image of Britain, perhaps derived from a sanguine and superficial reading of Jane Austen’s novels, as ostensibly untouched by the war. Although the prophesied horrors of French invasion (satirised by Gillray with his guillotine in Piccadilly) and enslavement under the Napoleonic yoke did not come true, Britons were acutely aware of the war. Many served in it, or endeavoured to evade the press-gang that was seizing merchant- and ex-sailors for the Navy. Others worked in war industries, including in nascent mass production factories in the royal dockyards. The war had a considerable economic impact. Britain underwent soaring taxation and inflation, severing sterling’s connection with gold and introducing paper money to the chagrin of rural romantic radicals like William Cobbett as well as the intellectual heirs of Adam Smith. At the same time, the industrial revolution, which would bring changes more long-lasting and far-reaching than any political revolution, was gathering pace. This economic advance created a stark contrast with a France, suffering industrial and commercial stagnation due to the Revolution, and entrenched British economic hegemony, with long-lasting consequences.

Uglow covers a cornucopia of topics: tourist travel around Britain; the development of new industries such as cotton and coal; the struggles and successes of farmers as their prices and prospects fluctuated; the violence and death ensuing from the militia’s suppression of riots and agitation. In each case, the war is skilfully maintained in the background. There is no detailed description of Waterloo; instead, a description of how news of the battle was brought and received (Uglow explodes the myth that the Rothschilds enriched themselves through duplicity over this information). Little details are her forte—the rain fulfilling the pathetic fallacy as Parliament met following France’s initial declaration of war on Britain in 1793, individual bystanders out shopping who were killed amid the repression of agitation. By tracing individual families, Uglow personalises complex issues such as the tangles the gunsmith Samuel Galton got into with his fellow Quakers, who eventually expelled him from their Society for refusing to give up his deadly manufacturing. Particularly impressive is her fair-minded account of the Highland clearances, which balances an appreciation of the demographic problems facing the Highlands as its population soared and the Enlightenment ideology of improvement which spurred on landowners, with the controversial and sometimes fatal methods employed to remove Highlanders, particularly by the Duchess of Sutherland’s land agent Patrick Sellar.

Uglow’s concisely sketched themes and vignettes have the welcome effect of leaving the reader wanting more, and her bibliography rises to the occasion. Yet Uglow perhaps endeavours to do too much. The various historical personages have a tendency to become jumbled up with one another and it’s easy to lose track of who’s who. Uglow also posits a somewhat Whiggish view of the post-war era as one in which virtually nothing really changed until the Whig reforms of the 1830s; she also has, to my mind, an overly negative view of abolitionist efforts post-1793. It is incorrect to imply that evangelicals such as William Wilberforce abandoned their attempts to abolish the slave trade in the 1790s—in 1796 Wilberforce’s regular abolition bill was lost in the Commons by only four votes.

It may seem paradoxical and churlish, given the above criticism, to regret this wide-ranging book’s omissions. However two seem especially pertinent. One is the absence of the pioneers of mass education, Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster, whose “monitorial” system was created by the former and popularised by the latter. Their efforts were important—they appeared to have established a system of mass education in England which was cheap and (by relying on “monitors”, older pupils, to carry on much of the teaching) practicable. Robert Southey declared, “Education has been for the first time reduced to a science.” The institutions which ran their respective types of schools—the National Society and the British and Foreign Schools Society—were the first recipients of Parliamentary grants for education in 1833. There was a critical difference between these institutions. Bell’s used, and Lancaster’s omitted, the Anglican catechism from their teaching, thereby creating a divide between churchmen and nonconformists in education which lasted into the twentieth century, and helps to explain the continuing multitude of state religious schools. Concurrent were the first attempts at Parliamentary legislation for mass education (Samuel Whitbread’s parochial schools bill of 1807) and the proliferation of Sunday schools. Thus the Napoleonic epoch saw the laying of many of the foundations for the English schooling system of today.

The second omission is a sin of partial omission. Uglow covers Ireland up to the Union of 1801 but then stops. This is disappointing, partly because much subsequent British domestic political debate throughout the war focused on whether to permit Roman Catholics to serve in Parliament and other Establishment offices, a particularly agitated issue in Ireland. It was during this campaign that the noted Irish anti-Unionist Daniel O’Connell rose to the prominence and leadership that earned him the sobriquet “Liberator”, and subsequent entry into pantheon of Irish heroes. It would also have helped to provide a better explanation of the controversial Corn Laws of 1815. Traditionally derided as class legislation which self-servingly benefited landowners, these laws ironically had their origin in the efforts of Irish Whig MPs such as Henry Parnell to turn Ireland into a granary for the British Isles—Irish MPs dominated the initial committee in 1813 for instance—and it was a shame Boyd Hilton’s book Corn, Cash, Commerce (1977) was absent from an otherwise extensive bibliography.

However these are blemishes which do not detract from a fine work of synthesis and concision which ably utilises specialist works in a thoroughly engaging manner. A good historian aims as much to spur the reader on to delve into deeper seams of subjects they have only had space to penetrate to a few feet. Uglow satisfies this aim, and it must be hoped, as the bicentenary of the end of the Victorians’ Great War follows so closely on the centenary of the commencement of our Great War, that that former conflict and context will garner similar public attention and re-evaluation.

Edward Hicks is reading for a DPhil in History at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/the-other-home-front/feed/ 0
Situated Judgement http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/situated-judgement/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/situated-judgement/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 02:05:54 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25890 Gabriel Roberts


Adam Adatto Sandel
The Place of Prejudice: A Case for Reasoning within the World
Harvard University Press, 2014
£33.95 (hardback)
288 pages
ISBN: 9780674726840

Prejudice is a bad word. To say that a belief is prejudiced is to say that it is based on preconceptions, rather than on evidence and reason. To be prejudiced is to be moved by an unjustifiable hatred or animus for this or that group. Together with bigotry and bias, prejudice is something which we try to overcome through dialogue and education. This is what most of us think most of the time.

Adam Sandel thinks otherwise. In this lucid and well-written book, he argues that prejudice, properly understood, is not an obstacle to clear thinking, but an essential aspect of it. In this, his thought can be aligned with that of philosophers, including Richard Rorty, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Williams, who have made a case for “reasoning within the world” or defended certain forms of prejudice. Where Sandel differs is in defending prejudice in very general terms.

It is worth stating early on that the book is not an attempt to demonstrate that prejudice is more pervasive than we usually think and therefore that we should either resign ourselves to its existence or treat people’s claims to be unprejudiced as noxious ideological flim-flam. These are plausible points of view. But they are not the one which Sandel defends. He makes the more unusual claim that prejudice is a valid influence on our judgement.

The prejudice which interests Sandel is not prejudice in the ordinary sense. Instead, it encompasses all of the things, including habit, custom, common opinion, tradition, and upbringing, which influence us while evading our conscious reflection. He aligns this kind of prejudice with “the situated conception of judgement”, according to which we always judge from within our life circumstances, and contrasts it to “the detached conception of judgement”, according to which we judge best when we judge without relying on any authority or influence whose validity we have not explicitly confirmed for ourselves.

With his terms defined, Sandel considers the case against prejudice, tracing its development through the early modern period and the enlightenment. Through readings of Bacon, Descartes, Adam Smith, and Kant, he shows how the case against prejudice comprised two separate strands, the first emphasising that prejudiced judgement is untruthful because it favours an individual perspective over how things really are and the second emphasising that prejudiced judgement is enslaved because the judger acquiesces in received opinions rather than deciding for themselves. He adds that even apparent defenders of prejudice, such as Edmund Burke, in fact bought into the prejudice against it, defending it on the grounds that it was socially useful rather than because they believed in it as a legitimate source of authority.

In the twentieth century, things were different. First Heidegger and then Gadamer conceived of prejudice in terms of situated understanding. Whenever we exercise our judgement, they thought, we do not begin from scratch, but with preconceptions and commitments which we have already acquired. These are not things which we have consciously chosen, but they affect how we decide to act, and nor can they necessarily be articulated, instead constituting a practical knowledge of how we make our way in the world. Judging in a detached way, insofar as it is possible at all, is just one way of being in the world rather than a privileged way of grasping reality. This is the position which Sandel endorses and he takes it to mean that we are always prejudiced.

To a remarkable extent, Sandel depends on abstract philosophical argument, rather than on facts, observations, examples, or any of the things which might bridge the gap between theory and practice. The result is that although the general thrust of the book is clear, and although the readings are illuminating and insightful, it is difficult for the reader to work out what is being proposed.

Part of the problem is that Sandel identifies a variety of things as instances of prejudice. Sometimes, it seems as if the question at issue is whether we should depend more on practical knowledge and spend less time trying to solve problems by being articulate about them. On other occasions, Sandel identifies prejudice with a kind of background knowledge which can only be obtained by engaging in certain extended practices and which is difficult to put into words. Elsewhere, he writes about prejudice in terms of “commitments” (perhaps ones which require an agent to favour some people’s interests over others). And in other cases, he uses ‘prejudice’ to describe how even the most apparently objective statements may be intelligible only to people who share our way of being in the world.

It does not help matters that the consequences of Sandel’s arguments are often quite underwhelming. Regarding background knowledge, for example, his conclusion seems to be no more radical than that people with background knowledge on a topic may be qualified to make judgements about it even if they cannot articulate their knowledge with perfect clarity. To accept such a conclusion does not require an overhaul in one’s epistemology.

The abstract way in which Sandel’s case is prosecuted also makes it difficult for the reader to work out what he opposes. For instance, if we are always prejudiced simply by virtue of being in the world, then our everyday distinctions between what is more and less prejudiced may recur within the wider framework of total, inescapable prejudice. Even if we cannot judge in a wholly unprejudiced way, it may still make a difference whether we act in the light of habit, custom, and the rest of it or whether we attempt to find less prejudiced grounds for action. It is unclear, however, whether Sandel’s argument is effective against everyday attempts to be unprejudiced or only the more philosophically ambitious ones (such as that envisioned by Kant) which are premised on the possibility of wholly unprejudiced judgement.

There are many questions which a book about prejudice might have addressed. Should we care for our friends and family more than for other people, even though those other people might be needier or more deserving? Is there a difference between this kind of prejudice and a heinous kind, like racism? Is it that one has positive consequences and the other does not? If so, are we really so sure that our caring for our friends and family more than other people has positive consequences for everyone all of the time? Clearly, this book is not an attempt to answer these kinds of question. But the almost total absence of examples means that the reader not only comes away with no idea about how to answer them, but no idea of how to begin thinking about them in terms which would be faithful to Sandel’s intentions. Eloquent though this is, for a book about situated judgement, it is not nearly situated enough.

Gabriel Roberts Roberts recently completed a DPhil in English at Worcester College, Oxford. He is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/situated-judgement/feed/ 0
Must Everything Really Die? http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/must-everything-really-die/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/must-everything-really-die/#comments Mon, 02 Mar 2015 02:00:20 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25861 Kanta Dihal


John Brockman (ed.)
This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress
Harper Perennial, 2015 (general release 26 March)
£6.99 (paperback)
592 pages
ISBN: 9780062374349

On his website Edge.org, a place meant to facilitate discussion between the world’s leading “intellectuals,” editor John Brockman asks his collective a different question each year. In 2013, the question was, “What *should* we be worried about?” In 2000, “What’s today’s most important unreported story?” And this year, he asked his great minds, “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” One hundred seventy-five scientists, philosophers, journalists, and others wrote essays in response to this question, which are collected in This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress.

With these many responses collected in one book, it cannot come as a surprise that the essays are all quite brief, some less than a page in length. This gives the author just enough time to introduce the concept that “must die”, explain how it has negatively influenced current thinking, and argue why we should get rid of it. Though this might sound likely to lead to a collection of fragmented snippets, it turns out to be the perfect length to push the boundaries of the reader’s general knowledge just a little further with every essay. Very few of the essays collected here preach to the choir, or simply repeat statements which have been widely advertised in the media before. Nicholas Humphrey’s essay belongs to this minority: keen to do away with the concept “The Bigger an Animal’s Brain, the Greater Its Intelligence,” Humphrey claims that the average reader will probably find this idea obviously true, backing up this claim with the laughable argument that in the twentieth century, a bigger computer meant more computing power. He similarly fails to reflect on the fact that dolphins and whales, for example, have bigger brains than we do.

Brockman’s definition of the kind of intellectual who can contribute to Edge.org is extremely inclusive, which leads to an assortment of authors that is unlikely to be found anywhere else, except perhaps in a collection of TED talks. His authors include famous academics such as Martin Rees, Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel C. Dennett, but also science writers such as Amanda Gefter, and people who have no professional relation to the science-oriented question at hand: novelist Ian McEwan and actor Alan Alda (M*A*S*H). The latter, however, presents an immensely insightful article on the idea that “Things Are Either True or False,” in which Alda presents himself as a lover of science who gives a lot of thought to his object of affection, as true lovers do.

What does seem to be missing from this book is coherence and internal debate. The essays are cleverly arranged in such a way that most of the time the reader will recognize a link between each essay. However, in many cases, more than one author has written on the very same topic: Giulio Boccaletti and Laurence C. Smith, for instance, have both written an essay against “Stationarity,” and there are two essays titled “Left-Brain/Right-Brain.” In many cases, the two or three authors writing on the same topic approach it from entirely different angles, adding to the debate, but a few essays contain overlapping explanations, which is unfortunate in a book in which the average essay is shorter than this review.

The book is especially intriguing where one essay directly contradicts another. Frank Tipler, for instance, argues for getting rid of “String Theory,” while in the next essay, Gordon Kane argues in its favour. It is a pity in these cases that authors do not interact at all in this book: it would have been interesting to see brief polemics develop. The authors choose to polemicize against earlier authors and writings instead. On the other hand, the fact that these essays are entirely independent gives the reader the chance to make connections between the opposing viewpoints, and to consider which side is more convincing.

Surprisingly, there are even a few essays that directly argue against the premise of the Edge question. Various authors, including Richard H. Thaler, and Ian McEwan in a less convincing essay, argue that no theory should ever be discarded. Jared Diamond claims that it is not always the case that new theories must replace old ones—sometimes new theories can come out of nowhere and fill a vacuum in our knowledge. Brockman opens up questions usually limited to discussions on the philosophy of science simply by including authors who think his question was a strange one to ask.

It must be said that in some cases, as in the aforementioned essays on “Stationarity,” the condemned idea is not necessarily well-known to the general public. This puts extra pressure on the author, who must explain the concept first, before arguing why it should be retired, and all that in five pages. In the case of Boccaletti and Smith, this has not worked out well; Smith’s essay comes after Boccaletti’s, but contains a considerably clearer explanation of the concept of stationarity, the idea that phenomena in nature fluctuate with an unchanging statistical uncertainty. In Luca de Biase’s essay against “The Tragedy of the Commons” this issue becomes even more problematic, as he does not care to explain what he means by “the commons.” It is unfortunate that only a few dozen contributors have made use of the opportunity to provide footnotes, as these would have been useful for the reader who wanted to learn more about a certain topic. In the case of Kai Krause’s essay on “The Uncertainty Principle,” for instance, it would have been helpful if Krause had provided more information on the mistranslation of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from the German word “Unschärferelation”, since, although this is the commonly used German term for the principle nowadays, in Heisenberg’s original 1925 article he calls it “Ungenauigkeit”.

This book approaches science from a position not often taken within science popularization: the question that is asked assumes there are flaws and mistakes in science which could be hindering it, and the book also shows that people sometimes strongly disagree about the kinds of ideas that are, or are not, productive. The question for 2015 is, “What do you think about machines that think?” This question is addressed a few times in This Idea Must Die, and the contributors will have a hard time creating a series of answers that are as diverse and productive as the 2014 question.

Kanta Dihal is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford. She is a Senior Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/must-everything-really-die/feed/ 0
Round-Up of the Week: Literary Limits, Pylon Politics, Impressionist Impresarios, Academic Advances, Whimsical Waiters, Moribund Musicals http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/round-up-of-the-week-literary-limits-pylon-politics-impressionist-impresarios-academic-advances-whimsical-waiters-moribund-musicals/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/round-up-of-the-week-literary-limits-pylon-politics-impressionist-impresarios-academic-advances-whimsical-waiters-moribund-musicals/#comments Sat, 28 Feb 2015 19:55:07 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25883 The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Toby Lichtig: ‘Genderlizations’“, Los Angeles Review of Books: Is the literary world an impossibly masculine monolith, an edifice which women stand no chance of penetrating? Literary magazines are still overwhelmingly dedicated to articles by and about men. However, Lichtig argues that despondency will get us nowhere. We must, instead, accept that there is more work to be done and press on optimistically with the work.

2. “Robert Huddleston: ‘Poetry Makes Nothing Happen: W.H. Auden’s Struggle with Politics’“, The Boston Review: Is a poet’s greatest responsibility a political one? While it is true that much poetry engages actively with representing social institutions and arguments, Huddleston argues that nothing matters as much as poetry’s independence from politics. Auden’s civil poetry, political only in broad terms, marks, perhaps, the greatest triumph for individual liberty precisely by not arguing for it too stridently.

3. “Michael Prodger: ‘The Man Who Made Monet: How Impressionism Was Saved from Obscurity’“, The Guardian: Paul Durand-Ruel, not an artist himself, was so entranced by the Impressionists that he supported them indefatigably. While this support almost bankrupted him, it also helped to thrust the Impressionists towards worldwide celebrity. A new exhibition gives him the attention which he deserves.

4. “Laura Kipnis: ‘Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe’“, The Chronicle of Higher Education: Kipnis considers how the rise and rise of paranoia about sexual exploitation and coercion on campus affects romantic relationships between academics and their students. Can we ever be convinced now that such relationships are not predicated on the exercise of inappropriate power?

5. “Cristina Nehring: ‘In Defense of the Notoriously Arrogant French Waiter’“, Wall Street Journal: Is it true that French waiters are, to echo Hobbes, simply nasty, brutish, and short? Or is there more to their craft? This witty insight into the workings of French gastronomic culture may help you to remain more composed next time a waiter, with arched eyebrow and slight sneer, tells you that you’ve got your order wrong.

6. “Terry Teachout: ‘The Song Is Ended’“, The Weekly Standard: Is the Broadway Musical a dying form? At one time, it looked to be, perhaps, America’s most significant contribution to the arts. Now, though, shows seem limp; Broadway and the West End are filled with ‘Greatest Hits’ shows and flaccid pieces based on second-rate films. What can the form do to regain the high ground of its glory days?

 

If you would like to suggest a link, please email Benedict Morrison

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/round-up-of-the-week-literary-limits-pylon-politics-impressionist-impresarios-academic-advances-whimsical-waiters-moribund-musicals/feed/ 0
Of Dope and Desire http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/of-dope-and-desire/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/of-dope-and-desire/#comments Thu, 26 Feb 2015 08:24:57 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25833 Kristin Grogan

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
USA, 2014

There are few cultural marriages more attractive than the union of Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon. On the one hand is the filmmaker who brought us the drug-fuelled escapades of the “Golden Age of Porn” in Boogie Nights (1997) and the magisterial account of the rapacious hunger for capital and the power of evangelical religion in There Will Be Blood (2007); on the other, the notoriously reclusive writer whose novels catapult their readers through the frenetic energy and terrible decay of the United States, fusing sex, violence, drugs, paranoia, and capitalist excess on the page. With Inherent Vice we see the creative energies of both occupying the same space. Such a meeting of minds is the stuff of dreams.

Anderson’s Inherent Vice is the first time Pynchon has been adapted for the screen, and the first attempt to find a cinematic language adequate to the experience of a Pynchon novel. It is not hard to see why Inherent Vice, published in 2009, was the book chosen to make the leap to the big screen. Any other novel would present an even greater challenge: can we imagine a film that could follow Gravity’s Rainbow from start to end, through all its fits and turns? Inherent Vice is a relatively short book and, for all of its wild leaps, has threads of plot, even if those threads are never woven into a coherent tapestry. Nevertheless, translating any Pynchon novel—any phrase, any chapter—from page to screen is no mean feat, and perhaps of all the directors working today, Anderson is best up to the task.

Set in 1970 in Gordita Beach, L.A., Inherent Vice begins as Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the ex-girlfriend of perpetually doped-up hippie and private-eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), reappears in Doc’s life to warn him of a plot to kidnap her big-shot property developer lover, Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The film follows Doc as he tries to solve an ultimately impossible case. Anderson presides over an impressive ensemble cast, and throughout the film Doc is pursued by his comic foil, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), entangled with the good-girl-gone-bad Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), is legally represented by Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio Del Toro), and attempts to reunite the ex-junkie saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) with his family, while a drug cartel—effectively a corporation—named “The Golden Fang” leers and looms. The whole thing is narrated, seductively but unreliably, by stargazing flower child Sortilège (Joanna Newsom).

It is strange that a film that feeds off such feverish energy, that moves with such extraordinary speed from scene to scene, from character to character, from silly clue to silly clue, can impart such a sense of exhaustion. In an early scene, Sortilège describes how Doc would imagine Shasta’s response to questions about her new relationship with Wolfmann. “I love him, what else?” she would have said, “with the unspoken footnote that the word was way too overused these days.” Inherent Vice articulates this moment of depletion through overuse—the exhaustion of a particular moment in the USA’s cultural history, the comedown after the 1960s, when the spectres of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon are always lurking close by. The film’s length and its knotty, spiralling structure contribute to this exhaustion. So too does its lack of establishing shots and claustrophobic reliance on close-ups of Doc’s face: we spend two and a half hours in a paranoid, idiosyncratic mind, a world where characters repeat the clichés of the hardboiled crime genre, endlessly recycling Chandler and Altman, but always under their breath in tired, slurred, and barely comprehensible tones.

One of Pynchon’s signature stylistic moves is to switch suddenly between modes: to puncture his immense, billowing sentences with lyrical interludes which act as tender rejoinders to all that accumulated historical and political mass. Anderson renders that perfectly, with a brief analeptic glimpse into a happier past, in which Doc and Shasta follow a Ouija board’s directions to an address where they might find some dope. They do not score, but they do frolic in the rain and we are rewarded with the emotional sincerity we feel we deserve; the scene satisfies, in Pynchon’s words, “those of us still attached to the thick and sorrowful catalogues of human desire.”

But that is the past, and the present is much bleaker and crueller; and besides the film cannot—or will not—sustain that sort of sweetness. The counterpart to that rain-soaked search for dope is another encounter between Doc and Shasta, a sudden and violent outburst of sexual energy that marks a serious change of pace and tone from the rest of the film. Shasta, having mysteriously departed, returns to Doc’s apartment and drapes her naked body over his clothed one, which he accepts as an invitation for a spanking. It is a much sadder scene than in the novel; where Pynchon has Shasta ask Doc: “Word’s around that you have this thing about Manson chicks?” Anderson renders this as the more desperate “What sort of girl do you want, Doc?” Anderson serves us a femme fatale who seems to crave punishment above all, while all of Doc’s desperation and desire are released in that one confused, violent, and horribly sad outburst. Here, the film edges closest to discarding its pretence of fun and frenzy and approaches something genuinely unspeakable. But it soon slips back into the same unsatisfying lethargy, as Shasta reminds Doc that “this doesn’t mean we’re back together.”

For all of this, the film is full of joys. Much of Pynchon’s comic genius is left intact, mostly courtesy of the film’s peripheral characters. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen provides a great deal of humour, when he is fellating frozen bananas or ordering pancakes in Japanese, as does Jade (Hong Chau) who works at the Chick Planet massage parlour. The score by Jonny Greenwood means the film can never stray too far from melancholy. It is also ravishingly beautiful (Anderson shot it on 35mm, not digital) from the first shot of Doc bathed in blue light, through to the scene in which Doc liberates Coy and the shot is momentarily obscured entirely by afternoon sunlight. For two and a half hours we find ourselves in a dreamy world of Californian sunshine, here plunged into blue tones, there warmed by an orange glow.

Depending on whom you speak to, Inherent Vice was awaited with keen expectation, fear of disappointment, and apprehension. Fans of both director and novelist might expect to be disappointed—but they should not be, or at least not too badly. For Pynchon and Anderson make a power couple to be reckoned with. Both are attuned, much more than most, to the fundamental inadequacies and contradictions of the system we have today (“Let’s not forget late fuckin’ capitalism”, Pynchon reminded us in Bleeding Edge). The 1970s that Anderson creates are rarely glossy or cheesy, and many scenes look barely indistinguishable from today. The sense is that very little has really changed. If anything, capital has only tightened its grip, things have only gotten worse; American life is still “something to be escaped from.” The film does look for redemption, not to be found in the doomed and depleted love between Shasta and Doc, but in a reunited family. Whether that redemption will actually come still remains to be seen.

Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/of-dope-and-desire/feed/ 0
Photo of the Week: Tourists near Andong http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/photo-of-the-week-tourists-near-andong/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/photo-of-the-week-tourists-near-andong/#comments Wed, 25 Feb 2015 08:00:39 +0000 http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25416 Andrew Cummings

 

Korea’s history isn’t exactly a peaceful one. Under Japanese colonial rule, traditional buildings were destroyed and Korean customs were oppressed so as not to threaten Japan’s imperial goals, but even before that, domestic squabbles and skirmishes with the Chinese and Japanese had also compromised Korean sovereignty. Since the colonial period, which ended in the 1940s, a greater emphasis has been placed on trying to revive Korean traditions and identity, and one of the ways in which this has been sought is through the development of domestic tourism. Even this river was bustling with Korean tourists come to admire the traditional houses of a small hamlet nearby, which, having been preserved since before the war, are a rarity these days.

This term, we are featuring photographs by Andrew Cummings, a graduate of St Anne’s College, Oxford. He now lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he does lots of things, including teaching, studying, translating, and taking photographs. You can find more photos by visiting his Flickr or tumblr pages and can follow him on Instagram.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Laura Ludtke.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/photo-of-the-week-tourists-near-andong/feed/ 0
Magnificent Banality http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/magnificent-banality/ http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/magnificent-banality/#comments Tue, 24 Feb 2015 08:11:32 +0000 potosí—for potosí banalities—banalities oakman’s oakman potosí—for potosí banalities—banalities oakman’s oakman potosí—for potosí banalities—banalities oakman’s oakman potosí—for potosí banalities—banalities oakman’s oakman potosí—for potosí banalities—banalities oakman’s oakman http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/?p=25846 Benedict Morrison

Potosí
Written and directed by Jonathan Oakman
Burton Taylor Studio Oxford

The Burton Taylor Studio at the Oxford Playhouse is often credited with an unrivalled intimacy. At moments, this epithet is a clear euphemism, suggesting an underwhelming pokiness. At other moments, however, it is a genuine and meaningful compliment, an acknowledgement of the BT audience’s penetrating closeness to the action. Rarely has this proximity been used to better advantage than in Potosí, a new play, written and directed by Jonathan Oakman. The play is itself a study in intimacy, and in particular that peculiar tension between familiarity and strangeness which exists during a one-night stand. In the minutes and hours after the intense—and, in this instance, life-changing—physical intimacy of sex, what can the two not-just-strangers find to talk about? Oakman’s script sensitively explores this scenario, endowing the characters with a nocturnal lucidity, combining the platitudinous and honest, the clichéd and the novel, the contrived and the authentic. The script veers from the funny (with references to the “traditional post-fuck mango”) to the tender. The danger of trite over-writing is intelligently sidestepped, with portentous lines (“people are people”) typically rounded on and undermined (“that just doesn’t mean anything”).

Two men—Matthew (Tom Pease) and James (Shrai Popat)—have met at a nightclub and gone back to Matthew’s place. Lying, contentedly post-coital, they begin to talk. For Matthew, this is like a thousand other nights; for James, this is a first. The promiscuous and the chaste meet in a moment of discovery for both. This situation could have felt tediously schematic, the characters mere figures without actual development, but in Potosí the performances succeed in uncovering real individuality. Popat brings to James a moving and believable romanticism, speaking of the titular mountain town in Bolivia with wide-eyed excitement. This quixotic streak, which could so easily have become cloying, is deliciously undercut by Matthew’s brand of compassionate cynicism, which Pease delivers with effortless comic talent. Both performances are enormously endearing. The ease of their physical contact is impressive, never distracting, never unconvincingly staged; it is easy to believe in both their sexual closeness and the comfort which follows it; their moment of dancing is both exquisitely gentle (in the vein of Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing) and very funny (“you dance like a plank of fucking plywood”). The performances revel in the script’s banalities—banalities which grip even the most exhilarated lover at 3am—and elevate them with a sense of the transformative (as Matthew begins to feel for his casual lover and James allows himself to admit his sexual desire for another man).

The play is at its least effective when it loses confidence in its own commitment to the everyday. The action is intercut with a series of oppressive phone calls from James’ mother. It is finally revealed that James’ father has died, an event which cues a more serious discussion of the pressures on young gay men to meet the expectations of parents. The self-evident seriousness of the topic somewhat over-announces itself, and throws the two lovers into a different, more contrived conversational mode. It is in its observation of the magnificent significance of the mundane when seen through the prism of sexual and romantic desire that the play excels. The inclusion of the parental storyline feels more conventional and less courageous than the quiet interest in two ordinary men on an ordinary night. However, this is a small complaint; even as the spectres of unfulfilled mothers and dead fathers threaten the play’s ordinariness, Matthew declares his devotion to Strictly Come Dancing, bemoaning the fact that all men are not like his Len. How could anyone fail to love Matthew—and Potosí—for that tender, most human of sentiments?

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Managing Editor at the Oxonian Review.

]]>
http://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/magnificent-banality/feed/ 0