Jane and Steve in Moseley!



A new addition to the Readers’ Gallery. Thanks, Jane and Steve!

For a chance to win one of three free copies of my fourth novel, Manuel Estímulo’s Fascist Book of Everything, just send a pic of yourself with your copy of any of my previous books to jay.spencer.green@gmail.com for inclusion in the Readers’ Gallery. All entrants will win a free eBook edition.

Cultural Dyspepsia



My review of Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, by Clive James


As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it was beneath him, or at the very least that he would have preferred to be elsewhere, and that it was only the chance to chat to Vitali Vitaliev or P. J. O’Rourke every couple of weeks that kept him coming back.

It’s now clear to me precisely where he would rather have been: 1920s-30s Vienna. Much of the cultural activity referred to or discussed in this infuriating, intimidating, and baffling book seems to centre on or be connected to the Austrian capital. It took me a period of several weeks to read the whole thing, dipping in and out but proceeding assiduously and alphabetically, through its potted biographies, and I found myself increasingly bemused by the frequent references to Viennese culture; only when I looked back, in preparation for this review, did I see, having forgotten all about it, that the biographies are preceded by an “overture” (the book also has a “coda,” just to give you an idea of the kind of pretentiousness we’re dealing with here) that is devoted to the city in question. It’s in this overture that James explains the significance of the location that forms the focus of his work: Vienna was the source of a Jewish intellectual diaspora that, in his view, had a huge influence on the development of Western culture. This was the motherlode whence came much of the high modernism he holds in such esteem: Stefan Zweig, Karl Kraus, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Arthur Schnitzler, and a whole swathe of others. Not that they all receive biographies of their own in this volume, but their influence seems to pervade the biographies of those who do.

However, underlying this case study in oppression is the broader theme of the struggle of Western liberal humanism against various forms of totalitarianism, and this usefully explains why among those profiled are Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Jean-Paul Sartre, Sophie Scholl, Leon Trotsky, Mario Vargas Llosa, Czeslaw Milosz, Raymond Aron, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Brasillach, to name but a few, protagonists on one side or another of this struggle. The humanism in question, though, is a peculiar, idiosyncratic, eccentric version, albeit one explicitly related to “civilization” and civilizing activities such as the arts and humanities. In his introductory chapter, James writes:

As a journalist and critic, a premature post-modernist, I was often criticized in my turn for talking about the construction of a poem and of a Grand Prix racing car in the same breath, or of treating gymnasts and high divers (in my daydreams, I astonish the Olympic medalist Greg Louganis) as if they were practising the art of sculpture. It was a sore point, and often the sore point reveals where the real point is. Humanism wasn’t in the separate activities: humanism was the connection between them. Humanism was a particularized but unconfined concern with all the high-quality products of the creative impulse, which could be distinguished from the destructive one by its propensity to increase the variety of the created world rather than reduce it. Builders of concentration camps might be creators of a kind . . . but they were in business to subtract variety from the created world, not to add to it.

All well and good, although given that Walter Benjamin is one of those profiled, it wouldn’t have been too much to expect James to know that, “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” For consistency’s sake, why not exclude any artist whose work depended on the patronage of empire, upon the destruction of the lives of thousands, if not millions, of others? Well, perhaps because this is not a humanism to which James seems willing to admit all of humanity. It is sad to think that he might once have recognized the craftsmanship and skill that went into the construction of a Grand Prix car, all the more interesting because of the involvement of so many individuals in its construction, but the fact is that since those early, broad-minded days of journalism, he seems to have taken a step backwards. There are no profiles in this book of car designers, despite the motor car being one of the most significant cultural forms of our age. There are no architects, no painters, no sculptors. A few people from the mass media: TV, film, radio. Not theatre. There are some musicians, but classical. In the main, there are poets, there are essayists and novelists, and there are politicians. And there is only a handful of women, which says something highly significant: This is a humanism that excludes more than half of humanity.

And this is odd, because the whole book is dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ingrid Betancourt, and the memory of Sophie Scholl, as much as to say that these women are exemplars of the humanism that the author holds so dear. Indeed, while discussing postwar American education, he writes,

. . . the resulting story made Eleanor Roosevelt, whose idea the GI Bill was, into the most effective woman in the history of world culture up until that time, and continues to make her name a radiant touchstone for those who believe, as I do, that the potential liberation of the feminine principle is currently the decisive factor lending an element of constructive hope to the seething tumult within the world’s vast Muslim hegemony, and within the Arab world in particular.

Disregarding the patronizing “feminine principle” and the murkiness of the sentence as a whole, might we not consider this a case of motes and beams? Where, in your book, are the liberated feminine voices of Western civilization, Clive? Where’s Aphra Behn, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir, your own Germaine? They are absent. Women who had to struggle to have their voices heard are silent in this pantheon. And, most egregiously, not to say obscenely, the chapter devoted to Sophie Scholl, she of the White Rose movement, deals but briefly with her heroism and soon devolves into a multipage eulogy for Natalie Portman, the waif-like actress toward whom James seems to nurture unwholesome intentions and regards as the only suitable actress to take on Scholl’s life story. I have to say, his ill-disguised and squalid slaverings left a nasty taste in my mouth too. I suppose Portman at least should be flattered that she has such power to distract such a dedicated humanist from the ostensible subject matter of his work.

The cover of this edition carries a blurb from J. M. Coetzee describing the book as “a crash-course in civilization.” It is no such thing. A car crash is more civilized. Rather, this is a series of biographies of a very particular subset of a specific generation, around whom the author has built an edifice composed of a grab-bag of heroes and villains in order to demonstrate (1) the size of his library, which he never stops going on about, (2) the extent of his own erudition, (3) the number of languages he can speak, and (4) that democracy is all very well in principle, but someone has to tend to the finer things in life and it can’t very well be the great unwashed.

The writing, it should be said, is generally clear and fluent, unless James is trying to advance a simple argument, its simplicity concealed by superfluous references and asides, and the reader is rarely stopped in his or her tracks trying to figure out what’s just been said. Perhaps that’s the remnants of the journalist in James. It’s rare, though, that what is being proposed is either striking or original. Much of the argument is, truth be told, unchallenging and sophomoric: It’s Fukuyama light. Liberal democracy is unstoppable, history is liberty becoming conscious of itself. Totalitarianism cannot last. To make matters worse, the case is made in a voice of such arrogance and self-assuredness that you can’t help but sometimes feel that you’d be tainted if you agreed with it. Try this, from his chapter on Italian philologist Gianfranco Contini:

One night in Florence in the early eighties, my wife and I accompanied Contini to the opera. . . . After the performance it was raining so heavily that Contini accepted a lift home, with my wife at the wheel of our worn-out Mini. He was in the front passenger seat and I was folded in the back. They talked scholarly stuff . . . The rain was so heavy that we ended up going the wrong way. I remembered, and recited, a tag from Dante: “Chè la diritta via era smarrita.” Because the right way had been lost. Contini smiled from ear to ear, and when I added my regrets that I hadn’t written the line myself, he laughed aloud. My timing hadn’t been that good, but the pedagogue had been pleased to the depths of his soul. This is what he had been in business to do all his life: spread the word about culture across cultures. And one of his aesthetic beliefs, acquired as an inheritance from Croce, was that Dante had been in business to do the same. It was the universal conversation, conducted through memory, and it had happened right there beside the Arno, in the dying echo of the music.

Though it can be overdone, there is nothing like a trading of quotations for bringing cultivated people together, or for making you feel uncultivated if you have nothing to trade. Nowadays very few people can quote from the Greek or would think to impress anyone if they could, and even quoting from the Latin-still a universal recognition system in the learned world when I was young-is now discouraged. Quoting from the standard European languages is still permissible at a suitably polyglot dinner table: I was once at dinner in Hampstead with Joseph Brodsky when we both ended up standing on restaurant chairs clobbering each other with alexandrines.

Who, at this point, could not but feel sympathy for totalitarians?

And this, from the chapter on Evelyn Waugh:

The decay of grammar is a feature of our time, so I have tried, at several points in this book, to make a consideration of the decline part of the discussion. Except in a perfectly managed autocracy, language declines, and too much should not be made of the relationship between scrambled thought and imprecise expression. . . . Everybody wants to write correctly. But they resist being taught how, and finally there is nobody to teach them, because the teachers don’t know either. In a democracy, the language is bound to deteriorate with daunting speed. The professional user of it would do best to count his blessings: after all, his competition is disqualifying itself, presenting him with opportunities for satire while it does so, and boosting his self-esteem.

There is much else besides in this book to demonstrate that reading does not equate to intelligence. The snobbery and the recourse to poorly supported arguments such as this latter one (I can recommend, off the top of my head, Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language and Rancière’s Ignorant Schoolmaster for relatively easy-to-find and stronger counterarguments) suggest that in spite of having read so much, James understands very little. This struck me most forcefully when I read his chapter on Jean-Paul Sartre, one of James’s villains—the devil’s advocate of the volume, he says—not just for his defence of the Soviet Union but also for his fraudulent philosophy. Now, while it might be acceptable in some circles to suggest that there was more than a coincidence in Sartre’s decision to base his existentialism on Heidegger and Husserl’s philosophies during the German occupation, and to infer that his subsequent fellow-travelling with the Communists was another marriage of convenience, to argue that his philosophy was, as a result, pure sophistry, and to say so in such a judgemental and definitive manner, tells this reader that James doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about. A. J. Ayer and the Logical Positivists decided long ago that there was no need to read Heidegger because he used the word “Nothing” incorrectly, and that was the only refutation they required. James doesn’t seem to have even gone that far before deciding that Sartre’s philosophy is a sham. And given that we know this, what reason is there to suppose that James actually understands anything else that he has written about in this book? The entire volume is suddenly suspect, if it wasn’t already (French culture as a whole receives short shrift in this book; apparently it has never managed to regain its pre-war heights). Or perhaps it’s just that James likes his philosophers analytical, clear of prose, and foundationalist: Plato, Russell, the early Wittgenstein. You won’t find any Rorty here, nor Foucault or Derrida. But then, where’s the problem when, as James reminds us, Alan Sokal has already shown that they were just a bunch of conmen?

This really is a bizarre and partial book. Nevertheless, I was determined to get through it, all 850 pages, and determined to write a review, of sorts, so that I could put it aside for good. To see such a vast amount of knowledge expended to so little consequence is profoundly annoying. It really got under my skin. The only upside to reading it, I would suggest, is that the reader might learn other, better lessons at the author’s expense.


Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, by Clive James. 2007. 850 pp. W. W. Norton.

Andy in Bataan!


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A new addition to the Readers’ Gallery, offering you a twofer! Thanks a million, Andy. Hope you enjoyed the book. And the view!

For a chance to win one of three free copies of my fourth novel, Manuel Estímulo’s Fascist Book of Everything, just send a pic of yourself with your copy of any of my previous books to jay.spencer.green@gmail.com for inclusion in the Readers’ Gallery. All entrants will win a free eBook edition.

Liam in McDaids!


Liam in McDaid's

A new addition to the Readers’ Gallery. Liam in McDaids pub, Dublin. Thanks, Liam!

For a chance to win one of three free copies of my fourth novel, Manuel Estímulo’s Fascist Book of Everything, just send a pic of yourself with your copy of any of my previous books to jay.spencer.green@gmail.com for inclusion in the Readers’ Gallery. All entrants will win a free eBook edition.

Book Review: Castoriadis: Psyche, Society, Autonomy, by Jeff Klooger


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In the July 4, 2009, edition of the BBC World Service’s discussion programme The Forum, Nobel physics laureate Frank Wilczek, author of The Lightness of Being, gave listeners a succinct description of the nature of the universe:

Close to the core of quantum mechanics is that you learn that seeing is a very active process. There are limitations to how much you can know about an object without disturbing it. This is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and when you get into the really subatomic realms, that becomes even more extreme. To observe the spontaneous activity in space, in a sense you have to create it. An analogy might be, beneath the surface there is lava boiling, or magma boiling. To get it out, to bring it to the surface, you have to actively intervene. And then it comes out, and in a sense you’re creating it on the surface.

These ideas—the conception of the universe as a seething, boiling magma, and the idea that we actively participate in the creation of the world we perceive—play a significant part in the philosophy of Greek-born Francophone thinker Cornelius Castoriadis, one-time Marxist, co-founder of the group Socialisme ou Barbarie, and the so-called “philosopher of autonomy.”

Castoriadis both read and wrote on a broad range of topics—mathematics, physics, biology, the social sciences, linguistics, the arts and humanities, popular culture—and did his best to stay abreast of the latest developments in the hard sciences, so we should perhaps not be surprised to see such ideas so conscientiously applied in the construction of his philosophy. However, the encyclopaedic nature of Castoriadis’s oeuvre makes him a challenging thinker to summarise, and it is to Jeff Klooger’s immense credit that he successfully manages to do so here, ably tracing the pathways of Castoriadis’s thought and presenting them in a condensed but coherent form, choosing as his starting point Castoriadis’s theory of self-creation and pursuing its implications first for our understanding of society and history and then for our ideas about identity, the human body and psyche, the nature of Being and beings, and the meaning of meaning.

Partly on the basis of the formal implications of a wholesale rejection of determinism but also because of his detailed examinations of the diverse materiel comprising human reality and existence, Castoriadis advances a radical and provocative approach to questions about the nature of being, incorporating an unequivocal acceptance of indeterminacy as an intrinsic characteristic of “being” in the human realm. As far back as Zeno, Parmenides, and Heraclitus, philosophers have been aware of the paradoxes inherent in the application of an identity logic (A=A) to being: the logical impossibility of change, motion, and creation. Faced with the reality of change, creation ex nihilo, and impermanence, we are forced to either accept that the appearance of change is illusory, as Parmenides concluded, or else accept an indeterminacy at the heart of being (A≠A) that traditional Western logic-ontology rejects as inconsistent with its definition of being. Castoriadis’s solution is to introduce the concept of magma, a mode of being in which indeterminacy is never absent. Wilczek’s comment above thus offers a useful metaphor for thinking about being in general, as Castoriadis conceives of it. Both Being as a whole and individual beings, including human beings, are magmas, seething, boiling “masses” in which entities, ideas, and forms are constantly being created, forcing their way to the surface, and then disappearing like a burst bubble into the ether. This metaphor can be usefully applied to the quantum physical world, to the biotic world of living animals, to the human psyche, and even to history.

This does not mean that the universe is characterized by chaos. A universe in which indeterminacy was ubiquitous would lack any kind of stability or permanence, the ontological equivalent of white noise, with no discernible forms at all. Indeed, the traditional Western logic-ontology would not be conceivable were it not for the fact that beings exhibit some semblance of permanence and stability; the mistake is to assume that the appearance of such permanence and stability is the reality. Rather, at different levels of being, entities persist, are stable, and endure for periods appropriate and relative to their scale: As evolution shows, the persistence of entities and our perceptions of them as such have to be adequate for our survival needs. An inability to perceive predators as enduring, stable entities in their environment would undoubtedly place animals at a distinct disadvantage in the survival stakes. And mathematics becomes possible only because we are capable of extrapolating or abstracting from semi-permanence to create concepts with the appearance of permanence.

At the psychological and social levels, magmas and our involvement in self-creation are again central to Castoriadis’s ideas. Castoriadis draws on the not-uncontroversial work of the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, in particular their concept of autopoiesis, to explain the human capacity for self-creation and autonomy. Castoriadis’s background as a psychoanalyst left him with a Freudian conception of the human psyche that we might today regard as somewhat quaint; a seething, undirected collection of urges and drives, the wilder impulses generated by the lustful, aggressive, self-seeking id managed and controlled only by the conscious mind, the superego, the socialized, self-disciplined part of the psyche. In the traditional Freudian framework, the containment and control of urges constitute the source of our neuroses, our dreams, and our fantasies, but also our creativity. Such a framework fits in well with Castoriadis’s overall ontology, albeit a framework that no longer holds up so well in light of what we know now about cognitive development, particularly in children. Nonetheless, there are obvious overlaps in their conception of the human mind. Here’s neuroscientist Rodolfo Llinás discussing human creativity:

The neural processes underlying that which we call creativity have nothing to do with rationality. That is to say, if we look at how the brain generates creativity, we will see that it is not a rational process at all; creativity is not born out of reason.

Let us think again of our motor tapes in the basal ganglia. I should like to suggest to you that these nuclei do not always wait for a tape to be called up by the thalamo-cortical system, the self . . . In fact, the activity in the basal ganglia is running all the time, playing motor patterns and snippets of motor patterns amongst and between themselves-and because of the odd, re-entrant inhibitory connectivity amongst and between these nuclei, they seem to acts as a continuous, random, motor pattern noise generator. Here and there, a pattern or portion of a pattern escapes, without its apparent emotional counterpart, into the context of the thalamo-cortical system.

In other words, the constant firing and sparking of creativity goes on even while our conscious mind is otherwise engaged. When the “spotlight” of the conscious mind dims or goes out, when we sleep or drift into semi-consciousness, we can access those noises, that bubbling of ideas that is always there beneath the surface. While this might not be the creation ex nihilo that Castoriadis has in mind, it keeps intact his idea of the human psyche as magma. In any case, the deficiencies in Castoriadis’s Freudianism do not significantly undermine his case for indeterminacy or for the role of autonomy in human affairs, and Klooger prudently devotes only a limited amount of space to this aspect of Castoriadis’s thought. Of greater significance is the “imaginary,” an aspect of the human condition, and of society and history, that traditional thought has always ignored, neglected, or failed to understand or appreciate. Acknowledging the importance of the imaginary, and of the imagination, means acknowledging true creation as an essential part of the human condition; creation, that is, as the emergence of forms that are in no way determined by what preceded them.

For Castoriadis, society is, in its essence, a process of self-creation. Societies bring themselves into being by the creation of “social imaginary significations,” which they embody and around which they organize themselves. This is true of all societies but, says Castoriaidis, only those societies that recognize themselves as self-creating, who understand that their institutions and structures are not given from on high by the gods or pre-ordained by Nature but created by humans, can be characterized as autonomous. Its members have the capacity not just to reflect on, question, and challenge the legitimacy of their institutions; they can also go about actively formulating and trying to construct their own alternatives.

Such a demystification of society took place in ancient Greece, Castoriadis argues, where a transformation in consciousness gave rise to the birth of philosophy and the democratic polis. It also occurred later, in the modern West, beginning around the 12th century in autonomous city-states but attaining its peak in modernity proper, when what Castoriadis calls “the project of autonomy” engaged in a radical critique of the existing organization of society and pursued the goals of individual and collective self-determination.

Castoriadis has been criticised for the supposedly ethnocentric underpinnings of this theory, for privileging Western culture and Enlightenment thought over alternative conceptions of philosophy and society, but as Klooger points out, identifying the project of autonomy with particular societies does not necessarily entail equating it to the concrete cultural and institutional expressions of it within those societies. Moreover, and as Klooger acknowledges, Greece was not alone in undergoing such transformative experiences. Karl Jaspers identified several “axial civilizations” (including Greece) that underwent revolutions in understanding at around the same time:

What is new about this age, in all three of these worlds [i.e., China, India, and the Occident], is that man becomes aware of being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terrible nature of the world and his own impotence. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void, he strives for liberation and redemption. By consciously recognizing his limits, he sets himself the highest goals. He experiences unconditionality in the depth of selfhood and in the clarity of transcendence.

Or perhaps we might say, more prosaically, in the Old Testament, God is going around speaking unto everyone, whereas by the end of the Gospels not even Jesus is on speaking terms with him.

Klooger draws on the work of sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt on axial age civilizations to explore the challenges that their history poses to Castoriadis’s concept of heteronomous societies (i.e. those societies unaware of their own self-creation) and to contrast Eisenstadt and Castoriadis’s conceptions of the history and nature of self-reflexivity. The distinction is fine, but essentially Castoriadis’s definition of self-reflexivity entails the active questioning of established truths and norms, and not just mere incredulity towards them. It was only in ancient Greece, he contends, that this challenge takes place; it was there that the two fundamental questions of philosophy—How ought we to live? and What, and how, ought we to think?—are asked for the first time.

Klooger does an excellent job of identifying the lacunae in Castoriadis’s work and spares no effort in teasing out the smallest of contradictions in what remains an impressive, coherent, and powerful intellectual edifice. Some of his objections, over terminology, for instance, may strike the reader as hair-splitting, but it’s also clear that he has laboured intensively to make sense of Castoriadis’s thought and to render it comprehensible for his readers. In his later writings, Castoriadis explored the threats posed to contemporary society by our declining awareness of its, our, self-creation and by the dominant social imaginary of our time, the unlimited expansion of rational mastery. These are topics outside the scope of Klooger’s work but provide a logical extension to it and, what’s more, are the basis for much of the rediscovery of Castoriadis’s writings in recent years, especially among social movements. Interested readers can find The Rising Tide of Insignificancy and Figures of the Thinkable available as free pdfs online. I highly recommend them.

Undergraduates who’ve paid attention in class, postgraduates under a certain age, and non-academic readers of an inquisitive bent and with an enthusiasm for philosophy will find this book invaluable as a challenging, provocative, and genuinely enjoyable introduction to a thinker whose ideas remain extraordinarily relevant and useful. Before engaging directly with Castoriadis’s own works, which can be intimidating in their intensity and vocabulary, students would do well to read Klooger’s introductory text. It is to be hoped that Brill can be persuaded to bring out a paperback edition in the near future. No one can realistically expect individuals to fork out 200 bucks for a book, and this particular one is too important to be confined to the libraries of academic institutions.

Castoriadis: Psyche, Autonomy, Society, by Jeff Klooger. 2009. 368 pp. Brill.

Book Review: Respectable: The Experience of Class, by Lynsey Hanley


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I was predisposed to regard Lynsey Hanley’s book favourably, having very much enjoyed her previous work, Estates, and finding that we had a similar background, albeit separated by a decade or so. While Hanley was raised on the Chelmsley Wood council estate in Solihull, I was fortunate enough to grow up in the slightly more salubrious Shirley: my parents were both born into poverty but benefited from postwar employment levels, so that by the time I was born my father had been promoted to foreman in the factory where he worked, enabling my mother to work only part time and the pair of them to take out a mortgage on a house beyond the boundary of Birmingham itself, albeit only barely. The similar backgrounds and biographies are germane to my enjoyment of Hanley’s book, not because they generate a sense of solidarity or recognition, or not only because of that, but also because they go some way to explaining our mutual interest in sociology and our fascination with the issue of class.

Whereas Hanley recounts discovering the middle class for the first time at Solihull Sixth Form College, my first encounter took place at a younger age, 14, when I joined the local tennis club. It was there that I first met not just the middle class but also snobbery, as well as contempt, and disdain, both for me and for ‘my people’. Having been fortuitous and privileged up to that point, it was not until my teenage years that I became conscious of not being good enough, of being observed from the outside and judged negatively, as wanting. It was at this point that class became for me a reality, a lived experience. When I subsequently moved to Manchester and found sociology was an A level subject on the local college curriculum, I took to it like a duck to water.

It was sociology that allowed me – and Hanley – to make sense not just of our place in the world but also of the world itself. And this brings me to the most striking revelation I experienced while reading Respectable: That those who find themselves growing up in the heart of their class rarely have to give their social location a second thought because everyone surrounding them reaffirms the same set of values; they never have cause to doubt nor need to reflect upon the intrinsic merit of their own class habitus (they are “working class and proud of it” or else they are “born to rule,” the “creme de la creme” as one of my schoolfriends – the son of two teachers – put it before going off to work for Lehman’s and DeutscheBank). For other specific class fractions, however – those on the boundaries between two classes, those who have moved between classes (up or down) – class becomes an obsession. Indeed, it is fair to say that this obsession with class and the concern with self-worth are in themselves part of the habitus of these particular class fractions; these are the benighted folk who comprise what may be called the “anxious classes,” that part of the middle class worried about falling into poverty, those upwardly mobile from the working class concerned about keeping up appearances, and those who engage in conspicuous consumption, the nouveaux riches, keen to demonstrate their social mobility. And, of course, Sociologists! It is class as these groups experience it, which is to say, self-consciously, that is really at the heart of Hanley’s book. Not that the book is any the worse for that. The arguments and observations are well supported, making good use of the canonical texts in the Sociology of Class (Paul Willis, Wilmott & Young, Pierre Bourdieu, etc.). But because it uses Hanley’s own experiences anecdotally as a way of introducing topics, it really only provides a phenomenology of the class migrant’s experience of class. Those who have spent their entire lives within their own class may have an entirely different view of class than that described here.

Hanley expresses her admiration for Richard Hoggart’s mid-20th-century classic The Uses of Literacy and to some extent has succeeded in producing a 21st-century version. While this is admirable, it means the book is accompanied by all the attendant vices of Hoggart’s book, particularly the tendency to wander off-topic for the sake of enumerating or recording particular events. Nonetheless, I found very little to disagree with and much to like, within the confines of the account she provides. It would have been interesting to have heard the voices of the people Hanley left behind in her movement between classes. Did they all fail to make it into the middle class? Are any of them better off financially than she is, and if so, how come? What is their view of class? We don’t know. What Hanley has really given us are the pathologies of a particular way of thinking about class, and the reader may conclude that the importance she ascribes to issue is nothing more than the result of her own upbringing. I’m inclined to agree. For a more comprehensive measure of the role and importance of class, I would suggest the need to add a macroscopic perspective, such as that provided by Pickett and Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level, as well as a historical dimension, such as that given in Conor McCabe’s The Sins of the Fathers. Which is not to say that Hanley’s book is not illuminating and a joy to read, only that vignettes, however beautifully and intelligently drawn, are only windows into a life, not maps of an entire world.

Respectable: The Experience of Class, by Lynsey Hanley. 2016. 240 pp. Allen Lane.

Book Review: The Slave Ship, by Marcus Rediker


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The cover of my edition of Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship features a quotation from the Sunday Telegraph describing it as “A truly magnificent book.” Such is my prejudice that I imagine Telegraph readers coming to Rediker’s work not to be educated about the shaping of race and class in the Western hemisphere by the Atlantic slave trade but to bask in reminiscences about the source of their wealth or enjoy some tales of derring-do among the savages. An education is what they will receive, nonetheless, whether they like it or not.

By now, the basics of the slave trade are well known, including its triangular pattern; ships starting in Bristol or Liverpool carried manufactured goods to Africa, which were traded for slaves, who were carried to the Americas and sold to work on the plantations, where the raw materials-cotton, tobacco, and sugar-were bought to undergo modification in the factories and mills of Lancashire, Birmingham, and elsewhere up North, for sale in, among other places, Africa. The slave trade was thus perfectly integrated into the other new markets generated by the Industrial Revolution. It was a business just like any other, a reality that tends to escape analyses of slavery that focus on the barbarity and captivity endured by the slaves to the neglect of the logic behind both.

Not that there isn’t plenty of savagery and captivity to go around. The genius of Rediker’s book is that he has relied heavily on contemporary accounts of life on a slaver, from merchants, captains, sailors, and the slaves themselves. This lends a clarity, vividness, and depth to the story that, while not for the faint of heart, will leave readers in no doubt as to what went on and why. The answer to the big why, of course, is the pursuit of profit. The pursuit of profit explains pretty much everything. But what Rediker manages to tease out in his account are the nuances, the subtle tensions, the balancing act that capitalists have always had to perform, in order to extract labour from the exploited. Anyone who has worked in a factory will recognize, or at least understand, the wheedling, coercion, and incentivization of behaviour deployed by ships’ captains to get the most from their crew and human commodities, even if the cat o’ nine tails is no longer the instrument of choice.

The journey from England to Africa typically saw the modification of the ship by skilled labourers-carpenters and smiths, for instance-who turned it in to a floating prison, a Guineaman, as the slave ships were universally referred to, before its arrival on the shores of such places as Benin, Congo, and Angola. In particular, this part of the journey saw the construction of the barricado, a barricade, a high, strong wooden barrier that stretched across the entire main deck of the ship and behind which the crew could retreat in the case of insurrection by the slaves; the barricado contained holes and a raised platform for the crew to fire their guns and cannon at the slaves, as well as a door that allowed only one person at a time to pass through. The barricado also turned the main deck into a kind of prison courtyard, so that when the slaves were allowed up onto the main deck for “dancing,” the crew could keep an eye on them and fire down on them if necessary.

“Dancing” was, by and large, a euphemism for exercise. The slave merchant had no use for damaged goods, so it was important in terms of maximizing his profit that the slaves he sold in the Americas be fit for work. This necessitated some sort of “humane” treatment, so slaves were fed and watered, but at the same time, the captain had to ensure that fit, strong slaves were never in a position to revolt. “Dancing” thus took place in manacles and leg irons, with slaves supervised and motivated by crew members, under instruction to keep the slaves both healthy and acquiescent. This was a tall order, as you might imagine. Slaves understood the meaning of captivity, even if the technology was new to them, and would do everything in their power to escape or deprive the slaver of their labour. Suicide was common, either by hunger strike or leaping to the sharks that followed the Guineamen knowing there would be food. The ships were thus also equipped with netting around the sides of the decks to prevent such attempts-because the slaves believed that when they died their souls would return home, many drowned not just defiantly but happily-and with the speculum oris, an instrument used to force open the jaws of those recalcitrant slaves refusing to eat. The slave merchants knew there would be deaths on board their ships-cramming as many bodies as they could onto their ships was a recipe for epidemics-but death was always factored into the equation when gauging likely profits. Merchants had a good idea how many deaths to expect, providing mass suicides could be prevented, hence the expectation that the captain would nip any form of resistance, passive or otherwise, in the bud, pour encourager les autres.

Class tensions asserted themselves, too, in the relationship between captain and crew. Few sailors appear to have wanted to sign up on Guineamen. The mortality rate was exceedingly high for crewmembers, the captains were notoriously barbaric, and the morality of slavery was naturally an issue. Many sailors signed up either to get out of prison or to avoid prison. Captains would scour the taverns of port cities with a couple of reliable mates, often family, in search of likely crew, who they’d attempt to get drunk and, with the connivance of a tavern owner in on the scam, draw into debts of such magnitude that they found themselves the next day with the options of either signing up or going to jail. This was no way for a captain to generate loyalty and devotion among his crew, but then he only required their obedience, not their love, and he relied upon the perception of a shared interest in survival once the slaves were on board to solicit the crewmembers’ allegiance. Rediker describes how captains’ personalities and attitudes slowly changed during the journey. Sweetness and light to the crew on the way to Africa, he would turn into a brute to slaves and crew alike once loaded and bound for the Americas. Crews did mutiny, but rarely in unison with slaves, and with a view to selling the slaves themselves on occasion. By and large, though, the captains and mates formed a cohesive group dedicated to realizing the profits at any cost, and so to the extent that they depended upon the crew to do this, the captains would do anything in their power to elicit compliance. A ratio of 8 or 10 slaves to every one crewmember was considered sufficient to meet all needs, including repression. However, once the ship had deposited its cargo in the Americas, many crew became surplus to requirements and would be travelling back to England with nothing to contribute to the bottom line; on the contrary, they constituted a cost insofar as their wages would be paid on arrival. Consequently, toward the end of the second stage of the voyage, just as the slaves were receiving improved treatment to ready them for market, the captains would try to alienate those crewmembers who would not be needed for the journey home, so that they’d jump ship in the Caribbean rather than face the final leg under the captain’s command. This persecution of the crew was deliberate and at the behest of the merchants, who sometimes gave explicit instructions to the captain that they dispose of superfluous crew, even though such a practice was illegal. Rediker tells us that the slave ports were crammed with these pitiful wretches, former crewmembers crippled by disease or unable for one reason or another to get passage home.

Rediker demonstrates how the trade played a part in shaping not just the economic relations between Britain, Africa, and America, but also the social relations and the perceptions of race and class of those involved. Captains often tried to purchase slaves who would struggle in mutual comprehension. If they spoke many and different languages, it followed that they would less likely form a cohesive unit, find common ground, and revolt. A lack of common language made insurrection less likely. Nonetheless, the common experience of captivity transformed slaves, for both themselves and the crew, from being members of discrete, sometimes even antagonistic, African tribes, into “Negroes”, pure and simple, and crewmembers into “White Men”, regardless of the colour of their skin. Race relations were simplified, in effect, because of the universal experience of slavery. Slaves became brothers and sisters regardless of origin, by virtue of their shared experience. New bonds were formed in the face of necessity. Hardship produced co-operation. Slaves may well have found themselves in their predicament as a result of capture by other Africans, but on board ship every African became a brother or a sister. And for the plantation owners who received them, the slaves’ origins were of little consequence; they were a source of labour power and nothing else.

The book closes with accounts of the insurrection by sailors in Liverpool in 1775, in which a thousand sailors wearing red ribbons and armed with muskets, blunderbusses, and cannons attempted to destroy the Mercantile Exchange, and of the role of the slave ship in mobilizing forces to ultimately abolish the trade in Britain. It isn’t part of Rediker’s remit to explore the social and economic factors that contributed to the demise of the slave trade in Britain, only to explain how the slave ship itself played a part in shaping the struggles of those who took part. He does so convincingly, engagingly, and perceptively. This is a book in the tradition of “history from below”, and I couldn’t help but compare it to Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch for the way it demystifies social relations and explains the interplay between class, race, gender, and empire. It isn’t really the kind of book you’re likely to buy as a gift, but it’s a compelling read, and you’ll be doing a really big favour for anyone you buy it for, even if it’s just yourself.

The Slave Ship: A Human History, by Marcus Rediker. 2008. John Murray. 468 pp.

You Lovely People!!


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YouBeaute!Best Indie Comedy 2018

A huge thank-you to everyone who voted in ReadFree.ly‘s search for the 50 Best Indie Books of 2018. Here’s the site’s own report:

Over the past 6 weeks, 10,000 votes were cast in a world-wide search for the very best indie books. The range was breathtaking – from personal stories of new love, to epic sagas of new worlds. We could have easily compiled a list of 500 titles without a drop in quality.

These, dear friend, are the books you’ve enjoyed reading the most over the past year. They will all receive fabulous Olympic-style medals, with the top place book also receiving a gorgeous jade glass trophy.

I’ve been on tenterhooks over the past week as the site gradually revealed the top 50 books, and it wasn’t until last night that the top ten were finally revealed, including Fowl Play at the outrageously high position of No. 8. Not only that, but it was the highest -ranked book in the Comedy category, making it the Best Indie Comedy of 2018!

It’s always a real boost for indie writers to receive recognition from readers. By and large, we have limited finances to spend on publicity, marketing, distribution, and PR, so it’s usually word-of-mouth and the organic process of building a reading community that sustains us in our endeavours (as well as bloody-mindedness and a maniacal need to dump our brainz on the page). Consequently, readers are something other than a meal-ticket for us—what indie writer makes a living from their work?—they’re partners in a dialogue. Rewards are nice and all, but really they’re just confirmation that that dialogue is taking place. Thank you for listening and speaking. You’re only gorgeous.