London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 7: Hyde Park

The final photo-essay by Dr Nick Maroudas on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Epstein lived at no. 18 Hyde Park Gate, and it says much for the civic pride of this ultra-respectable neighbourhood that he was twice commissioned to make a sculpture for the Park. Both of them have a “green” theme. But here I must confess, they often tempted me to an ecological peccadillo: on a drive between north and south London, I would cut through the park solely to get out and admire them on the way.

In a little bird sanctuary one can see the memorial to W.H. Hudson, author of Green Mansions and a founder of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In the 60s Notting Hill was still the unfashionable side of Hyde Park, tainted by genteel prejudice against the Irish navvies who had built Paddington station. “No Irish” was a familiar notice on rooms to let in London. But time has fulfilled Peter Rachman’s prophetic vision of a Notting Hill with real estate value added: it has proved entirely feasible to drive out the poor and bring in a better class of tenant to the north side of the park. Coming back from the past on a visit to London in the 21st century and walking down from Paddington, I was startled by the apparition of a well dressed lady leading two very clean infants toward the park in fresh cotton frocks – all magically transported from Kensington. But recalling that I had read about a movie starring a new and fashionable “Notting Hill”, I hastily collected my wits and asked directions; because the bird sanctuary is rather small and easily missed among the surrounding trees . Mention of a bird sanctuary drew blank looks, so I explained that I was looking for: “a small statue of a bird lady with a puffin on her shoulder”. I used this childish language because I was beginning to suspect that I might get more out of the children than out of the adult. The lady seemed pained, and the little girl began to tug urgently at the grownup’s skirt so, not wishing to embarrass them further (“To the Irish every stranger is a potential conversation, to the English every stranger is a potential bore”). I crossed the Bayswater Road as soon as the lights changed (but no sooner, lest the children be set a bad example). Hardly were we inside the park when the lady kindly came up to me and said, with that stiff embarrassed expression which the English well-bred assume when obliged to address somebody to whom they have not been properly introduced, “My daughter tells me it is near the Lido”. I thanked them and went on with joy in my heart; because that little girl had not been taught about W.H. Hudson and the founding of the RSPB: she had been taken to the Serpentine by her nanny, or in a school crocodile – and the wild bird lady had become part of her consciousness.

Which is as it should be.

I would have liked to tell the child that the bird lady’s name was Rima, and that she comes from a book called Green Mansions because birds live in green mansions – but I was too shy.

Epstein Hyde Park
figures 48 and 49

Here is the Hudson memorial “the size of a postage stamp” inside its fenced sanctuary (figure 48). And here is Rima in a flurry of wing and beak (figure 49). They are wild birds and, according to an ornithologist friend, symbolic rather than exact. The larger are two species of typical hooked-beak raptor; the eagle is well worked-out, with feathers finely chiselled and massive wings folded to power dive “like a thunder-bolt”. The softer raptor is more hawk like. The small birds may be a species (or two) of crow with general-purpose Swiss-army-knife slightly-curved beaks. There is no puffin, ignoramus that I am.

As a boy, I read Green Mansions in the same week with Pride and Prejudice. These books, swallowed together and too soon, left a vague impression of two remote exotic lands at opposite poles, equally distant from my urban working-class world. But however vague my recollection of those heroines, long joined with ‘Rapunzel’ and ‘The Princess on the Pea’ in the swirling mists of fable, I am absolute that Rima in her green mansions was closer to Epstein than Miss Bennet in her entailed estate. No Jane Austen Society followed the RSPB to commission Epstein. Rima probably scared them off because she “ain’t got no panties”. Rima is a wild thing among the wild birds; and Epstein created her stark naked like Botticelli’s Venus because, as Botticelli remarked (in the play Poor Little Nelly Machiavelli) “it increases her pathos, poor dear”.

Epstein Bowater
figures 50 and 51

Epstein’s sculpture for Bowater House (figure 50) was entitled The Rush of Green. Fluid bronze depicts a family and their dog rushing forward towards the park to enjoy clean air and green spaces (figures 50 to 56). “Pan charms them and nature pulls them away from the offices, shops, and dwellings behind”. It stands as Epstein’s last testament, and a cheerful one. Like Beethoven in his final phase, “he had more to carry, and he carried it more lightly” (J.W.N. Sullivan).

Epstein Bowater
figures 52 and 53

I like the boy with the dog. Epstein sculpted his own dog Frisky as an adorable little spaniel; but the Green’s dog is a large hound of indeterminate breed with a long clumsy muzzle, half wild, half comical as it looks back toward the family in its bounding dogginess. The father appears resolute, long suffering – a typical Epstein look (figure 54); perhaps he is worrying how to pay the rent yet spend time with his family. Behind him comes Pan, keeping a wary eye open for a change in the weather. The active bodies of husband and wife express a good contrast between rugged maleness and smooth femininity (figure 52). But the woman with a beseeching gesture leads them all onward (figures 52, 55 and 56) – her body elongated into a strong fluid line of bronze, like the barrel of a big gun, like the keel of a ship, like a rocket:

Das ewig-weibliche zieht uns hinan.

In this last work, Epstein found yet another solution to the problem that he had long pondered: how to reconcile the big public statement with the joys and sorrows of ordinary life. In size and finesse of architectural setting, this is very much in his grand manner; but in depiction of personality it is very much in the manner of his portrait busts. And in gaiety it joins with other cheerful statues of London’s open space: Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Girl with Dolphin at Tower Bridge.

The old Bowater House was built in Mies van der Rohe style; one of those neat modular boxes in which most of the work of the world gets done. It has since been demolished. The sculpture and its gate have been displaced to make way for the most expensive apartments in the world: four fussy concrete-and-glass blocks, twice the volume of Bowater House.

Epstein Bowater
figures 54 and 55

I liked Bowater House. It ought to have been listed Grade I for preservation, because its dark-suit-white-shirt office anonymity provided a perfect foil to Rush of Green (figure 50). Alas, that is only my opinion. Here is an authoritative voice:

The one piece of enlightened thinking [by Bowater] was the later (1959-61) inclusion of an Epstein sculpture of a family group with the god Pan, facing the park. Had it been at the Knightsbridge side, this sculpture might have provided some sort of sense of a public realm at the buildings base. As it was, it was largely ignored.

Against which, I present photographic evidence, figures 50 to 56. To at least one former Londoner, Bowater House provided a definite “sense of public realm at the building’s base”; and this magnificent piece of sculpture was by no means “largely ignored”; quite the contrary, I used drive in from Knightsbridge through Bowater’s ample portal over the old Edinburgh gate, just so that I could spend a few moments drinking in that glorious rush of green. You can see them now as I saw them then (figure 56) bathed in early sunlight and rushing to green in “the joy of the morning”.

As with a previous Epstein setting (see TUC House), one can only hope that colour photos of the Rush-Greens at their original address survive, so that another piece of official vandalism might stand a slight chance of being corrected in some remote enlightened future.

Bowater Epstein
figures 56 and 57

On August 19th, 1959, Epstein completed The Bowater House Group. He died later that day in his home at 18 Hyde Park Gate, of heart failure. A quick, clean death at a good age and on a good occasion, attended by people who loved him; I should like to go like that.

In Loughton, where he lived for many years and where his second house, at no. 50 Baldwin Hill, bears a blue plaque:

… he was remembered by many local residents who saw and chatted to him, as a man of kindly and compassionate disposition though impatient of anyone lacking humility…

He possessed a gracious and courteous manner. His conversation was cultivated and, on the subject of art, very learned.

He never lost his Brooklyn accent.


Googling from abroad I learn that Rush of Green, coyly renamed the Pan Statue, now stands in a displaced Edinburgh Gate, “much narrower than the one lost in 2007” (Evening Standard) and “with slightly meagre pavements” (The Guardian) – not surprising on a site where any square metre clawed from public space into private hands might gain the seller £50,000. At their new address the bronze group remain mercifully intact, albeit more cramped and perched on a zippy new plinth against the intrusive buzz of visual distraction from 1HP. Here is the opinion of Oliver Wainwright; I think his words apply equally well to Epstein’s bronze family. Wainwright is preferring some plain buildings from the 60s: [which are] “to be hugged like the family’s big woolly dog. In comparison to their rugged confidence, One Hyde Park seems more like a prissy Siamese cat: all grilles, flaps and mannered articulation. It would probably scratch you if you tried to hug it.”

As far as I can judge from the web, where they stand on South Carriage Drive new “street furniture” in aggressively safe Elfin fluorescent yellow, adds to the uneasy feeling of edginess and scratchiness. All that jazz diminishes Epstein’s carefully planned contrast with a plain neutral office building, and hence diminishes the original impetus of Rush of Green. But, being a resilient family, the Rush-Greens will no doubt adapt to their straitened circumstances and their pushy new neighbour, and continue to work some of their old magic on unsuspecting passers-by.

Money trickles upward, population increases, people grow taller yet ceilings grow lower, especially in your multi-million pound apartment on Hyde Park. Green space and public space get eaten away: there in a big gulp, here only a little nibble. Hyde Park still has 350 acres. Rush to the Green!

The great god Pan pipes them on, but keeps a weather-eye open on his tough old face.

Debaters use words and make generalizations. A developer promises “good design” and “high-quality public space”, leading to “vibrant” cities”. Pericles probably talked like that. So, what is the difference between the Parthenon and 1HP? Look and see, don’t rely on words. There are lavish words of praise for 1HP; there are even a few words of dispraise for the Parthenon: “misuse of public funds” and “filling Athens with buildings when they ought to have been filling it with justice and temperance” – the latter from high-minded Plato. There were even some words of denunciation for the Elgin Marbles, from the English Press in heavy italics: “The people need bread and you give them stones. We cannot eat stones!”.

But visual artists do not use words; they open your eyes.

Art survives words of praise or blame, can survive surprisingly long, be surprisingly resilient. Great art is like the Sybilline books: the complete set, worth all the public coffers of Rome; half destroyed, the remaining half still worth all the coffers; and so on, down to the last page. Art is like a hologram: break it and each piece will contain the image of the whole, though in lower resolution. Random spores of great art sleep for centuries, get picked up and inoculate susceptible people far away, to start a culture – like the yeast in the sourdough.

Having nearly completed this essay, I happened to re-read C.M. Bowra’s account of ancient Greek art: its love of the physical as a sign of truth beyond appearance, its deification of the human and its humanisation of the gods; its vigor; its respect for architectural and environmental setting. I think Bowra’s words and concepts equally applicable to the Epstein sculptures of modern London. (C.M. Bowra, The Greek Experience, chapter on ‘The Plastic Vision’; part of the series, History of Civilisation).

The most interesting fact that turned up from my googling for background to this essay was, that Jacob Epstein and Thomas Stearns Eliot were on friendly terms. The two avant garde Yanks lived near one another in respectable Kensington, sowing artistic revolt, and Epstein lit the candles on Eliot’s 70th birthday cake. Personal affinity is a strange chemistry, beyond classification by religion or politics: a right-wing intense Christian can share his world-view with a left-wing intense Jew. There is much of Epstein in these lines of Eliot:

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle,
Infinitely suffering thing.

I think Epstein is a great artist because he helped open my eyes to something that mathematical physics cannot explain and the currency cannot control: “flesh touched by God.”
Migrating here and there, along some dying eddies of the far flung British Empire, I remain grateful for the traces of culture that I picked up from London – its Epstein sculptures among other wonderful things in that great and grotty city.

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 6: Portrait Busts and Elemental Carvings

The sixth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

These little works are scattered round the world, but I happened to snap them on exhibition in the West End. The Epstein centenary exhibition of 1980 was not your modern blockbuster, with a glossy colour catalogue and punters who plod their weary way through crowded time-slots. The Ben Uri Gallery in Dean Street was small and friendly; nobody told you not to photograph and not to view too close. I have their catalogue still: only 24 pages of plain paper, folded and stapled in the middle like a school exercise book; black-and-white photographs. But the devoted presenters were a powerhouse of British art.

Henry Moore wrote: “Jacob Epstein was a great sculptor … particularly in England. It was through him that sculpture became important to a large number of people who otherwise never thought of it. … he took the brickbats and made things easier for people like me, coming after him.”

Lord Clark: “He started as a master of style, he ended as a master of truth.”

Anthony Caro: “The bronze portrait heads he made, particularly of the men, have been unsurpassed since his death. They have life and generosity of spirit, and these are indeed great gifts in the making of art.”

Epstein busts
figures 26 to 28

Figure 26 shows the front rank of the company, with Epstein himself leading the charge in wedge formation. Under a cavalry-style sturm-cap his eagle eye scours the field ahead, his bladed nose cleaves the air (figure 27). On his left flank rides Einstein, with Vaughan Williams covering the rear “like an eighteenth century admiral whose word was law”. Epstein’s back line looks strong, with Chaim Weizmann and Sunita, “a big woman who liked pepper in her whiskey.”

Figure 28 sounds a gentler note, unexpectedly delicate and refined – almost decadent. On the wall are Epstein’s illustrations for Les Fleurs du Mal. Little Piccaninny gazes with a knowing innocence, like the negro page in a rococo boudoir. Someone has thoughtfully brought two bunches of marguerites in a wicker basket to soften the stark environment of a modern art gallery. In front of the flowers, Esther wears a single bloom on her corsage. Her left breast is bare, her shoulders are delicate (figure 29). I would have liked to add more, but googling to identity the sitter, found that Esther Garman was Epstein’s daughter who committed suicide. Enough.

Epstein busts
figures 29 to 32

The head of Paul Robeson (figure 30) was reconstructed in bronze from sketches of the sitter. Epstein has assembled a complex personality into an equilibrium that looks both powerful and fragile. Robeson was a college graduate, a renowned US football player from 1917 to the early 1920s, an All-American athlete and the singer-actor who immortalized ‘Old Man River’. He played Othello to Peggy Ashcroft’s Desdemona at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon – one of the high points of my years in England. And yet there is a look of “The Insulted and Injured” in Robeson’s face, like that of a child on the verge of tears. The head is strangely poised on a V shaped neck, with a Λ shaped tuft of hair at the top, slightly off balance with the base. The humble aspiration in his uplifted eyes and the determination in his powerful jaw are unforgettable. Epstein recognized a συμμαχον , a fellow fighter. In that period – the 20s and 30s – when fascism was fashionable and ethnic prejudice was the social norm, a Jew or a Negro often needed to struggle for the simple right to be regarded as human; moreover for a creative or a performing artist there is also the perpetual struggle to achieve αρετε : the best from one’s potential.

Areté is evident in Epstein’s iconic bust of Einstein (figure 32). I have included a view from Einstein’s right (figure 31) and from his left (figure 33); because my sainted-mother-in-law of-blessed-memory, when we took her round the Tate, remarked that the right side of the face was racked with cloud compelling thought while the left was … and here she used an Austrian word which I do not remember but which sounded very gemuetlich vaeterlich. Epstein described him thus: “His glance contained a mixture of the humane, the humorous and the profound. This was a combination that delighted me. He resembled the ageing Rembrandt.”

Chaim Weizmann (figure 34) recruited Einstein for a fund-raising trip to the USA; the dynamic duo raised a couple of million dollars for the Hebrew University. However, in Epstein’s busts one can see the difference between these two very eminent Jewish scientists: the one a seeker after knowledge as the way to wisdom (figure 32), the other a seeker after knowledge as the path to power (figure 34).

More Epstein busts
figures 33 to 35

The Weizmann bust (figure 34) always reminds me of Lenin (figure 35). At first I thought it was because both men were Russians of similar phenotype (Tartar cheekbones, rounded skull) and both of them chose to sport their beards in the Imperial style; but seeing the two of them side-by-side by Einstein, I feel sure that Epstein’s Weizmann (figure 34) resembles Andreev’s Lenin (figure 35) in psychology as well as in physiognomy. They confront the world with the same domineering attitude: the cocky stance, the “sneer of cold command” (that is, when such people are not trying their winning ways by being utterly charming).

Andreev has skilfully caught a likeness in Lenin; Epstein has caught Weizmann with equal skill – but Epstein’s modeling digs beneath the skin. Somehow, all those wrinkles on the bronze surface mount up to expose unbearable inner tension. Weizmann complained that he was “the Prisoner of Rehovot”: sidelined on the political chessboard, restricted to building the finest research institute in the Middle East – a mere bagatelle for his powerful intellect. Verbally equivalent (to what Epstein is telling me in bronze) would be Solzhenitsyn’s opinion on this type of world betterer: his short story about Lenin, “the brain which could take the world apart and put it together again”, seething with frustration in peaceful Zurich.

Epstein busts
figures 36 to 39

Sunita (figure 36) was the model for Madonna and Child in Cavendish Square; so was her son. Having rashly described the son as Hindu-looking without knowing who the models were (figure 15) I was relieved to find a Hindu phenotype confirmed in this portrait of his mother (figure 36). (The Madonna of course is not only Hindu: Sunita said that Epstein had made Her far more beautiful than Sunita looked). The next three figures show how subtly Epstein could morph Sunita’s features, playing theme-and-variations on the phenotype. In figure 37 he has shifted Sunita to the European side of Indo-European, keeping her big straight nose (“bignose” the Chinese called their first Dutch sailors) and her big chin; but toning down her high cheekbones, slightly receding her forehead and softening the firm delineation around her own heavy-lidded eyes (figure 36).

In figure 38 he composes a really busty bust, drawing attention to the bosom by elongating her neck, throwing back her head and further receding her forehead. In Sunita’s final morph (figure 39) only the catalogue told me this was still the same model. Sunita has morphed into Israfel – who in turn will morph into Lucifer. In preparation for her eventual metamorphosis into a male angel, her breasts have been suppressed by tight banding (figure 39). The face has become more oval, and her hair has curled away from cold-climate Indo-Euro-Sino straight hair with relatively shallow waves (figure 36; hair that lies flat and keeps you warm) towards a hot-climate springy Afro-Arabian bush (figure 39; hair that spreads out and lets the breeze through). This is in step with her/his name-change, from the Indo-European sounding Sunita to the Semitic sounding Israfel.

“Great is Diana of Ephesus”. Huntress and protectress of wild creatures, protectress of women in childbirth, Diana Artemis Cybele, the Great Mother, Mother of the Gods, plays theme-and-variations on all her creatures. She creates a chimpanzee and, with a few deft touches of DNA, composes an Einstein. People and other animals, adults and children, cats and dogs and wild birds; Epstein showed great skill in depicting the nature of many different creatures, but behind all his variations lay one underlying theme. In his own words: “Man touched by God”.

Annabel Freud (figure 40) is wearing her baby bonnet, the youngest grandchild of Jacob Epstein and Kathleen Garman. This is another example of Epstein’s superb skill in portraying children.

Epstein busts
figures 40 to 42

I cannot identify the woman in figure 41; she does not look famous nor spiritual nor exotic nor tormented (although there is a touch of ancient grief bravely borne in the ringed eye-sockets and the upturned corners of a mouth fixed halfway between smile and sob). A remarkably plain Jane with a lumpy hairdo, parted down the middle, pulled back in a bunch and cut straight across the nape at a safe length: neither sophisticatedly short nor glamourously long. A very unusual face for Epstein; so ordinary and dumpy, he must have liked her quite a lot.

Mrs Godfrey Phillips (figure 42) was the wife of an industrialist. She was a great patron of the arts. Epstein has paid tribute to a delicate-featured woman of great sensitivity, modesty and attentiveness, with fine eyes ever-open in their search for areté.

The Elemental Carvings

I snapped these two carvings (both of them originally named Elemental) while they were on show in the Anthony d’Offay gallery before being shipped out to the South Pacific (figures 43 to 47). The attendant courteously allowed me to photograph these works, rarely seen in London, and I gave him my best slides as a token of thanks. The one is a female (figures 43) arching her back, perhaps in sexual ecstasy (figures 44 and 45).

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 43 and 44

Woman Possessed (figure 44) is now in the National Gallery of Australia, and this description is from their website:

The woman, who seems to be consummating her union with a god, lies back clenching her fists, with body arched upward in pose reminiscent of Lydia Sokolova at the climax of Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps … Sokolova [who in middle age coached Margot Fonteyn] described the final moments of her dance… “I dropped to the ground and lay backwards, raising my body in a taut arch…” Epstein attended the London performance of this ballet and made sketches…

Woman Possessed (originally called Elemental) is carved from Hoptonwood stone, a marble introduced by the young Henry Moore, who said he liked it because it was an English stone and he was English.

Epstein's Elemental carvings
figures 45 to 47

The title Elemental was transferred to a carving in alabaster (figure 46). According to the sculptor, it was the product of his “primitive woodland surroundings” (number 49 Baldwins Hill on the edge of Epping forest, 250 yards from Loughton bus stop opposite Homebase; good info from this Loughton website).

An apelike creature, squatting and hugging its knees (figure 46). What is it – hominid or hominoid?

Despite its 30s-style perfection of ovoid form, this translucent lump of stone brings to mind Darwin’s unforgettable account of some living conditions that really were elemental: “Tierra del Fuegans … naked and uncovered from the wind, rain and snow … sleep on the ground coiled up like animals … I can scarcely imagine that there is any spectacle more interesting and worthy of reflection, than one of these unbroken savages” (Voyage of the Beagle).

To my mind Elemental resembles a squatting baboon even though it does not have the doglike muzzle of a baboon. So my last photograph of an Epstein sculpture in London was this elemental creature curved into itself, squatting in a far corner of a Mayfair art gallery (figure 47) self-sufficient and self-contained like a real baboon keeping watch on some lonely krantz in the Karroo.

Read the last of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in and around Hyde Park

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 5: Parliament Square

The fifth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

“The finest body of mounted riflemen in the world”. Generous tribute to a former foe of the British Empire, from Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples – a history of the greatest body of armed robbers the world has yet seen, and written by its great Imperialist leader (“I have set three kings upon their throne”). Churchill was admiring the Afrikaner guerilla resistance to British occupation of the Free Afrikaner Republics, a resistance formidably led by the same Afrikaner general whom Parliament now honours. Well, Parliament has a sensible tradition of putting up statues to those who improved it by opposing it. And Parliament also has a profitable tradition of pirating the wealth of a small country after demonising its people as fanatical and its leader as corrupt. (Profitable for a handful of leading wolves; but their woolly flock of lobby fodder must remain content with salary, pension and what they can wangle from expenses).

The fate of the Afrikaner Free Republics and their President Kruger was sealed as soon as they began to mine gold and diamonds, and build modern cities with electric vehicles running on broad streets. Said my Afrikaner brother-in-law: “The British don’t bring progress; they just wait till they see something is working, and take over”. The smaller the better. Says the Afrikaans popular song DelaRey: “a handful of us ‘gainst a whole great might”.

Africa is crucified North to South, East to West. At its suffering centre writhes the Congo – the heart of darkness. Behind the armies sit politicians scheming how to deploy the army and “become filthy rich”; behind the politicians sit financiers scheming how to deploy Parliament and “control the currency”. It was not by chance that Joseph Conrad had the narrator of the Heart of Darkness begin and end his story on the shining Thames where Parliament sits and The City squats. And at the darkest centre of the Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s narrator needed only a brief glance to tell us: “the flabby devil was running that show … in the blinding sunshine of that land I would become acquainted with a flabby, weak-eyed, pretending devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly”.

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 21 and 22

So what is the most famous Afrikaner resistance leader doing on a plinth next the most famous British prime minister? There they stand (figure 21): the shambling romantic genius Churchill, “two hundred percent fit” on his regime of cigars, brandy and pudding; and the abstemious philosopher Field Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts, striding with upright head and body leaning forward, just as he used to walk on top of windy Table Mountain when I was a boy. In those days, Smuts was recruiting my young uncles (hardly more than boys themselves) to go “up north” and fight for the British Empire against the German Reich. But neither the Irish nor the Afrikaners wanted any part in that war:

The English occupied our country, starved us, shot us, dispossessed us – and then laughed at us. What harm have the Germans ever done to us?

A Resistance leader who sides with the Occupying Power is a quisling, and Smuts lost the support of his Afrikaners. But Slim Jannie (Smart Johnny) although a warrior by necessity was a conciliator by nature, and his philosophy was Holistic. Here is a more objective assessment, from Encyc.Britt 1967:

His greatness lay in his continuous pursuit of Anglo-Afrikaner unity, his contribution to international order and his vigorous leadership in World Wars 1 and 2.

At Christ’s College Cambridge, Smuts stood out as a student of great ability, with a mind that was both broad and deep. He wrote a psychological study on Walt Whitman, and he was the top first in both parts of the law tripos. He later published a book on Holism and Evolution.

But Joseph Chamberlain [Liberal businessman] and Sir Alfred Milner [of Midland Bank, trustee of Cecil Rhodes backed by Lord Rothschild of many banks] were impatient to assert British supremacy over the whole of Southern Africa. Smuts became a guerilla fighter. The experience demonstrated his leadership ability and won him the lifelong allegiance of those that served under him. After the fall of Pretoria, Smuts’s conciliatory work for political union and his draft constitution became the basis for the Union of South Africa.

In World War 1 Smuts became a member of the British war cabinet performing many valuable services for the British government and the allies. In 1918 he wrote a project for a League of Nations, which was a major contribution to the origin of that body. He opposed the imposition of severe reparations on Germany, and was extremely reluctant to sign the treaty of Versailles.

In 1921 he persuaded Irish leaders to enter into negotiations that led to the establishment of the Irish Free State.

In World War 2 Smuts, sensitive to the broader implications of Nazi expansion overcame political neutralism, and under his leadership the South African war effort was impressive. Winston Churchill set a high value on his judgment. In 1945 Smuts played a major part in drafting the United Nations charter.

I quote Smuts’s objective qualifications at length, because none of them are written on his plinth. All you see is an old soldier in a sam-brown. His face is careworn but his gaze is keen (figure 23). He is not your usual pompous person on a plinth. “Sit we never so high”, says Montaigne, “we can only sit on our own rear end”.

Epstein has preserved for posterity not his honours but the man himself. What we see today is exactly what future onlookers would admire, if that statue were to be dug up after a decay of civilization in which all records had been lost: the lively portrait of a man who walks firmly but lightly on his own two feet.

Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted 12 years. As for Churchill’s British Empire (“…if the British Empire were to survive for a thousand years…”) it collapsed within ten years of Churchill’s greatest speech. However, the same Anglo-American finance that bankrolled Rhodes and Milner continues to pull the strings in post-imperial Britain and post-colonial Africa: “I care not who rules a country, so long as I can control its currency”. The United Nations has followed the League of Nations by subsiding slowly into the same slough of ineffectual infamy: “I help the stronger nations reduce weaker nations to impotence”. The Union of South Africa survives, but it is a predominantly Bantu republic now, and not part of a White Commonwealth with the British monarch at its head as envisaged by Smuts and Churchill. Little is left today from Smuts’s holistic philosophy of unity, and his politics of reconciliation.

What will be left for the remote future? Perhaps only the image on this plinth: a man of action and a thinker, who looks upward and looks ahead, who near the end of a long life is still walking briskly. A man who does the best he can, who tries to stay upright and master the devils in himself, as well as the flabby devil who is “running that show” over there in Parliament (figures 21 and 24). The flabby devil is very strong: it is made up of millions of people, and it will never be exorcised until all those millions learn to think for themselves – which is very hard work.

History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors…
Neither fear nor courage saves us. Unnatural vices
Are fathered by our heroism. Virtues
Are forced upon us by our impudent crimes.
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.”

As regards style: for this official portrait Epstein reverted to the classical realism of his academic training; but it was the Realism of a master who had tried many things and held on to what proved good. He learned the Modernist trick of letting the forms speak for themselves: the sharp cusps of the lapels and the pocket-flap (figure 23), the flapping skirts of the riding jacket (figure 24), the intricate lacing on the puttees (figure 25), the exaggeratedly squared-off heel on the right boot; and its curved sole which is unrealistic but adds an impression of lift to the heel. However, Epstein was not “modern”: he respected the individuality of his sitters; his portraits caught a likeness and often expressed their soul – what neurologists used to call “their psyche” and nowadays call “their bundle of qualities” (says neurologist Oliver Sacks).

Epstein in Parliament Square
figures 23, 24 and 25

Once, in the 70s or 80s, I opened a book called Modern British Sculpture, and sought in vain for the name Epstein. Those days have passed, along with Modernism. The Smuts statue is timeless. However, it looks different from the timeless ideal that Michelangelo aimed at in his tomb for Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici: “A thousand years from now, who will care what those two really looked like?” Epstein cared deeply what people really looked like, insofar as he tried to show an outward reality that expressed the sitter’s inward reality: our timelessness lies within ourselves.

Smuts died in 1950, so the sculptor was obliged to work from photographs, aided by recent memory of the man. However, compared with El Greco’s portrait of cardinal Juan de Tavera 30 years dead, Epstein was in a much better position than Greco – and it shows. El Greco, with only the death mask to go by, portrays a pallid cadaver with its eyes propped open. Epstein’s statue strides with life abounding; all the more lively (without losing dignity) because of its tilt against the stiff verticality of Big Ben.

As usual Epstein carefully (and cunningly and craftily – German: kenning, knowledge; kraft, force) placed the work in its setting. By the time he conceived the Smuts statue Epstein had finally reconciled two hitherto disparate elements of his art: the large impersonal monument and the small personal portrait. He made good his early criticism of Rodin; it is not enough to create a monument that is beautiful or striking, as Rodin undoubtedly did: but the work must also harmonise with its surroundings. Epstein has daringly harmonised his work by setting it “against the beat” in Parliament Square.

So there they stand, Churchill with Smuts, both of them “leaning at a slight angle to the universe”; especially leaning at a slight angle to Parliament – as anybody must, who wants to get something done. They stand together because they pushed their respective Parliaments to resist a great force for evil at a crucial time. In the lost decades before Hitler’s war, a visitor to Britain remarked that he could not decide which was the greater wonder: a Parliament that possessed so great a man as Churchill, or a Parliament that could find no use for him. In the second world war Churchill, with sober Attlee at his side to turn inspiration into workable reality, gave British democracy its finest hour. And although modern South Africa is not the white commonwealth that Smuts represented, his holistic spirit can be seen in its extraordinary bloodless revolution which formed the present “rainbow nation”. Both men overcame appeasement at home and defeatism abroad, at a time when their countries stood alone against the fascist menace. They gave the “irresistible armed might” of fascism its first bloody nose, so that the beast backed off to turn on the Russian bear instead – and got its back broken. The holistic spirit of Smuts pervaded the postwar era (except for US paranoia over Communism), and gave a united Europe 50 years of peace and prosperity.

Now Blair and Clinton have unchained the flabby devil again, getting NATO to dismember Serbia to clear the way for a pipeline for an oil consortium and a base for the US Army: the first bombs to be dropped on a European country since Hitler. That is where we are now; the NATO devil is still rampaging, and I do not see anybody on the political horizon who can be even remotely described as “having a mind both broad and deep” or “devoted to reconciliation”.

If the Smuts portrait were to survive a couple of thousand years (a few old bronze sculptures, equally fine, have already survived that long) will historical record still identify the man? All I know is that I have lived to enjoy most of the unity and reconciliation that Smuts worked and fought for, both in wartime South Africa and in postwar Europe. And, as a South African born Britisher, I am grateful to Epstein for presenting “the bundle of good qualities” of the man, and leaving the rest to history.

Read the sixth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s portrait busts and Elemental carvings

London’s Epstein Sculptures: Part 4: Victoria and Battersea Park

The fourth of Dr Nick Maroudas’ photo-essays on Jacob Epstein’s public sculptures around London. The series begins here

Victoria – For London Transport

Transport House at 55 Broadway, over St James Park tube station, was the tallest building in the London of 1929. Fascism was in the air, Signor Mussolini (as the Press politely styled him) was securely in power, Herr Hitler and Secretary Stalin were gaining ground, and gigantic corporatism was well on its modern way. The Palais de Chaillot in Paris, built a few years later, reflects the same cold-faced grandiosity that will mark the Nuremberg rallies. Corporate gigantism is supported by billions of docile people worming through tubes underground, filing through lines at airports and now, nicely softened up by a constant barrage of terrorist alarms (as Miles Kington brilliantly predicted 50 years ago) patiently waiting for their turn to be passed through insecurity clearance.

Says the textbook on Statistical Methods, “one is not a statistical sample, it counts as zero”; the individual counts for next to nothing. There is a Law of Large Numbers; and it rules in mathematical physics, in economics and in politics. I do not like calculated grandiosity, and I cannot warm to Epstein’s essay in that impersonal style; so here is an extract of greater objectivity, from the London Transport Museum website:

Frank Pick, assistant managing director of the London Underground Group, commissioned the architect Charles Holden of the firm Adams Holden and Pearson to design the building. The modern and assertive design was considered an architectural masterpiece. It was awarded the London Architectural Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1929. The Underground Group’s desire to make a bold architectural statement in keeping with the ideals of the company had been realised. Holden commissioned some of the most famous sculptors of the day to carve large figurative reliefs, depicting the four winds, directly onto the stonework. These are high up each side of the four wings. The sculptors were Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Eric Aumonier, Samuel Rabinovitch, Allan Wyon and Alfred Gerrard.

Holden commissioned Jacob Epstein to create two groups over the entrances called Day and Night. Their primitive, vital style and the figures’ nudity created a furore. Both Pick and Holden stood by the sculptor, Pick even tendering his resignation in support of Epstein. His resignation was not accepted and the sculptures stayed. However an inch and a half had to be removed from the penis of the figure in Day, as the original size offended contemporary sensibilities.

Epstein’s sculptures were not universally slated. One contemporary commentator wrote, ‘When one looks at them one hardly likes them, but they make such a powerful impression on the mind that when one has left the building they stand out in the memory…’ The same commentator went on to say ‘one would be happier if all buildings were as good as this’. 55 Broadway is now a Grade II listed building.

My only comment is to note how far Epstein had developed away from the academic Classical Greek style which he had already mastered so brilliantly in his previous commission from Charles Holden, for the Strand. The giants here represent his ethnological interests, although there are also deliberate echoes of Michelangelo in the marmoreal smoothness of Night (figure 17), and in the virile roughness of Day (figure 18). Curiously enough, the Michelangelo commissions for that powerful banking house (the Lorenzo & Giuliano tombs, the Medici palace, the Lorenzo Library, San Lorenzo) are tinged with remarkable coldness: their curves “flow like frozen lava”. I suspect the Hollywood effect: paralysis of art by Big Money. The Medici entered historical record as a family of cut-throat bandits, then they became bankers. As a family of bankers they spawned popes and princes, a French princess and a good king of France – even founded the Bank of England (Banca e Compagnia was written on the old Libra £ notes).

Epstein for London Transport
figures 17 and 18

As usual, Epstein has placed his sculptures well. If one looks up from Night, one sees an ingenious groove cut into the building by the architect, to let more daylight into the vast mass; like a sunlit valley carved in the side of some dark mountain by a glacier. A cascade of windows recede floor after floor as far as the eye can see, like “hanging valleys” across the groove of the main valley. It is a fine piece of sculpture of its kind, set well into a fine building of its kind; and its kind of giant-unit-with-an-emphatic-public-statement is needed to perform the work of the world. However, there is a grave problem of corporate scale, as against the scale of the individual human body, which became acute in the 30s and 40s, and which is becoming even more acute today.

In his work for Transport House in 1938, Epstein went with the corporate spirit of the age and he mastered its forms. But already his 1913 work, Rock Drill, was a protest against the mechanized monstrosity of modern life. After Hitler’s war, he had pondered the problem and come up with new concepts that reconciled individual sensibility with corporate mass (see TUC and the final essay on Bowater).

The writer for Transport House (above) notes that Epstein’s penis fetish was well to the fore in Day and Son (figure 18). Even with one-and-a-half inches lopped off Sonny, it is still very much “in yer face”: if Sonny had been there to perform the same function as Manneken Pis, passers-by would have had to put up their umbrellas. But I like the kindly glint in his tough old dad’s eye.

The Transport House carving has a pre-Columbian flavour, an insensitive heaviness in keeping with the heavy insensitive style of the age – an age that fostered megalomania, ethnic suprematism and disastrous war. George Orwell cried out in despair: “there are no longer any Tories, there are only liberals, fascists and the accomplices of fascists”. Insert “economic” before liberals, and “corporate” before fascists, and you find an age remarkably like the present. Right now, huge economic and political structures are systematically crushing small countries with giant insensitivity. Posing on a NATO tank in Serbia after that little country has been bombed, occupied and dismembered, a British minister crows: “No-one can resist our armed might!”. Yes, 7 million people could not withstand our flabby corporate devil one hundred times its size: our 700 million strong NATO giant. Blair and Clinton dispatched the first bombers to break the peace of Europe since Goering flew his own “irresistible armed might” over Guernica. Megalomania opts for disastrous war; especially the megalomania of a servile piece of lobby fodder like that British minister and his ilk, in a Parliament of sheep led by wolves.

Battersea Park (and Coventry Cathedral)

Ecce Homo! I have only one picture, taken on a rather grey day, when even the Fun Fair looked cheerless (figure 19a). Vaguely remembering from his auto-biography that the sole customer for one of Epstein’s biblical statues had been a freak show, I rashly assumed that Ecce Homo belonged to Battersea Fun Fair; but no! The one in the freak show was an Adam with penis as long and heavy as a bull’s pizzle. (And God said to Adam, “Increase and multiply!”). As for Ecce Homo, Epstein could not find even a freak show to buy his new biblical sculpture (not so sexy as the old Adam). Ecce Homo became Eccy Homeless, aimlessly hanging around the Epstein apartment. To get Eccy out of the house, the Epsteins put him on floating loan to Battersea Park for an annual exhibition of sculpture. When I snapped him there, the other statues must have already gone home because Eccy was standing in a lonely corner of the lawn like Eeyore in his field, and looking rather glum (figure 19a).

Epstein's Ecce Homo
figures 19 and 19a

There is a happy ending to this sad episode. After Epstein’s decease his widow, the remarkable Kathleen Garman, had the bright idea of donating Ecce Homo to Coventry Cathedral. Then someone at Coventry must have had a brainwave because Eccy now stands by a pillar of the old bombed cathedral, where his suffering is appreciated at its true worth. Eccy is at home at last among those hallowed pillars. Like him, they have absorbed much punishment; and like him, they have come through.

Ecce Homo can now be appreciated by a new generation of amateur photographers, who post digital photos on the world wide web; one, uploaded by bressons-puddle, was chosen for Google World. The photo used here (figure 19) was uploaded by oxyman with Author Jim from London. They generously include a high resolution download for free, under Creative Commons.

The march of progress – and of freedom, as in Free Software, free lunch and free beer. Freedoms that annoy the high priests of Free Enterprise, because a really free lunch (one that is not just a tempting bit of bait, a loss-leader) upsets control through the currency. In the holy book of Free Enterprise it is written: “He who cannot pay, neither shall he eat. Nothing moves in this world until some money has changed hands”.

Eccy was a free gift to the cathedral; he was not bought and paid for. He is not to be valued against numbers large or small; he is an individual human being who suffers: Ecce Homo!. The man who drove the money-changers from the temple thereby signed his own death warrant, set for the last day of that very same week – and was resurrected on the very first day of the next!.

This is heartening. From the bombed ruins of two Christian institutions, a Jewish sculptor presents the Christian message of Incarnation (Convent of the Holy Child) and Redemption of Suffering (Coventry cathedral). The Nazis had a word “zu Koventrieren” – to Coventry a town, meaning to destroy it entirely. (As nowadays the US Army might say “to Fallujah” a town). And this very site, by a pillar of the Old Cathedral of Coventry, is where the ruggedness of Ecce Homo rises to its full religious dimension; where it can express a steadfastness unto death and beyond; of the man who was scourged at the pillar and of a faith that transcends the all-too-human, all-too-common brutality of man to man.

This figure is massively, even crudely, carved – partly for technical reasons (see below). But this crudeness is not a sign of insensitivity: the blunt features and scarified skin reflect an extremity of physical and emotional punishment. And yet! A dogged expression on the freshly bruised face (yet with eyes uplifted!) and those powerful yet amazingly reposeful hands! (figure 20) It reminds me of some imprisoned political leaders in two countries where I have lived. Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Marwan Barghouti projected this same image: a massive capacity to soak up punishment, and the serene courage to outface their persecutors. Luthuli died in captivity (“collided with a train”, I read) but I can recall his smile; Mandela was set free to share a smile with the world; Barghouti is still in the limbo of political captivity, neither snuffed out nor set free. Ecce Homo!

Coventry cathedral has another Epstein sculpture on its front wall, St Michael and the Devil. I saw it at the Tate, but London museums unlike those in Paris did not allow photography, so my comment is from memory. With Hitler’s war and a hard struggle against the brave, highly competent and totally misguided German army still in mind, I thought Epstein’s Devil looked unconvincingly flabby and Michael’s pose unrealistically nonbelligerent despite his spear. Since then, having found the flabby devil in other places (see the essay on Parliament Square) and pondering what it takes to exorcise him, Epstein’s concept begins to germinate. The flabby devil is strong only because he is so big: fifty million heads in the Nazi devil, seven hundred million in the NATO devil. He does not understand the harm he does, because he is too big and too stupid. Among the tens or hundreds of millions of heads in his flaccid body there must be millions of heads that can think for themselves and feel compassion for others; but the whole lot, acting in the lump, do not add up to even half a brain. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do”.

The law of large numbers is not valid here: a billion flabby bodies add up to a giant in physical strength, but a billion flabby, insensitive souls do not add up to a strong, sensitive soul. Neither does the law of large numbers hold for the individuals who suffer. Fifty million dead in Hitler’s war, a million in Blair’s wars, a mere thousand in Cameron’s little crucifixion of Libya; but in “the scales of justice where Zeus weighs the harvest of lives reaped by pitiless bronze, the profit and loss of war” – what do they weigh? The scales of justice cannot register more than the terror and suffering of a single child with its limbs blown off by one of our cluster bombs; nor of a single British soldier dying dulce et decorum pro BP. Neither can larger numbers exceed the suffering of a lone man “renditioned” to the Romans for crucifixion: “the cruellest form of death that perverse human ingenuity has ever devised.”

Ecce Homo!

The flabby devil can be chained: it was chained for 50 years in Europe. But I think it will never be exorcised until every one of its heads cares to feel the pain of a single victim crushed under our flabby devil – which is not a pleasant thing to feel. Much nicer to triumph with that British minister gloating from a NATO tank: “No-one can resist our armed might!”

Saturation bombing of German towns was the natural unchristian revenge for Coventry. What will the revenge be for Fallujah? For Belgrade, Beirut, Baghdad, Kabul, Tripoli and many more towns Coventried by our armed forces in ongoing “surgical operations” to enforce enduring freedom? You think there can be no revenge because no-one can resist our armed might? Here is C.M. Bowra on the proud founding fathers of democracy in their own Home of the Brave, Land of the Free:

The sense of unique powers easily became a sense of mission … and if Athenian civilization was not accepted voluntarily it was sometimes imposed by brutal compulsion. The Athenian empire brought many benefits to its members, but its policy, which was a result of self-confidence and belief in democratic ideals, could only breed distrust, fear and hatred among those to whom such ideals were abhorrent. … For the Athenians final defeat was a disaster which they had never thought possible. … In 454 their [five year long] expedition to Egypt had failed catastrophically. … in 413 BC the Athenian army was annihilated in Syracuse … The skill and luck which had guided and guarded Athens now failed her, and she had no protection against her enemies. …When in the summer of 405 BC Athens lost her [hitherto irresistible armed] fleet at Aegospotami, there was no more hope of resistance. … the recognition of it brought guilty fear for brutalities committed in the past. … They wept for their dead [soldiers] but far more for themselves, thinking that [now] they would suffer what they had done to the people of Melos, … of Histiaea and Scione and Torone and Aegina and many more … The inconceivable had happened, and the Athenians felt that they were deserted by the gods and hated by men clamouring for vengeance and able to exact it.

The Crucifixion of course implies the Resurrection; Good Friday implies Easter Monday: the paradox of the Christian synthesis. Fathers and mothers of the early Church, digging deep below the Classical foundations of the Graeco-Roman world, recovered primitive myths of birth, death and regeneration, of sin and atonement; and grafted them onto a new transcendental view of the world – of humanity’s place in a temporal universe which, vast though it may be, had a beginning and must have an end. Ecce Homo!

The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood
In spite of which again we call this Friday Good.

Ecce Homo was hewn out of a block of Subiaco marble from Italy, and Epstein records his brutal struggle with the stubborn recalcitrance of that stone in Let There Be Sculpture. Look at Eccy’s hands, from the hi-res photo (figure 20). They are a worker’s hands (carpenter’s hands?) with rough skin, and fingernails worn down square to the ends of his broad fingers; they might be the hands of Jacob Epstein.

Epstein close-up
figure 20

Read the fifth of Dr Maroudas’ essays, on Epstein’s sculptures in Parliament Square

Christopher Hitchens: Arguably (Atlantic Books)

Reviewed by Jacob Knowles-Smith

HitchensThe critic, wrote H.L. Mencken in his Prejudices, “makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art”. If we take this as a fair and desirable definition of a critic; which, Mencken continues, results in “understanding, appreciation, [and] intelligent enjoyment”; then in Arguably, his latest collection of essays, Christopher Hitchens measures up to the requirements and succeeds in producing those reactions through his limpid and erudite body of work. Mencken didn’t mention fulminous disagreement or wholehearted approbation – surprisingly, given his record – but one is almost certain encounter these reactions whenever Hitchens comes up in conversation, be it across the press or amongst interested friends. Suspicion should probably be meted equally to those whom describe Hitchens as the world’s greatest author and, conversely, try to dismiss him as a glib pseudo-intellectual. That being said, he simply is, even solely on the basis of Arguably, one of our greatest prose stylists, and is, maddeningly for some, capable of dismissing entire schools of thought and opinion, authors and politicians with a pen stroke of that prose.

You need look no further than first section, of six, of the book to appreciate this; of John Updike’s prose in his book Terrorist: “Could anything be more hip and up-to-the-minute?” or “This is a fair attempt to push all the clichés about Irish-Americans into one brief statement”. Examples such as these demonstrate that, though their friendship may have dissolved entirely, Hitchens’s writing still flirts with the influence of Gore Vidal, who was – is? – also capable of this type of constructive literary bitchiness (and also doesn’t escape criticism in this volume).

Arguably is a stout volume crammed with over one hundred pieces for greedy readers in the main taken from The Atlantic, Slate and Vanity Fair. Just under half the pieces are book reviews, mainly from The Atlantic, and these are the essays which elevate Hitchens from a social commentator or pundit – though usually incorporating these two aspects at the same time – to a critic. Indeed, if it had not been for 9/11 he might, as stated in a 2006 profile in the New Yorker, have left politics behind – excepting that his book reviews are of an holistic nature and go far deeper than the text under discussion; see the review of a book about the Founding Fathers and faith which he uses as a shield against the ‘theocratic fascism’ that threatens America today – and not meaning just the Islamic variety.

Obviously matters of religion are central to Hitchens’s body of work but it may be of interest to some, perhaps those wounded Christians who sent him congratulatory letters when he was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, that there are no outright critiques of religion in this collection. However, there are those that appear in more subtle forms in keen reportages from Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan and Afghanistan, among others, that describe both the oppression of those countries’ people by such outfits as the Taliban and heartening – not patronising – accounts of their desire for change, as we have seen in recent months. (We are also reminded that Saddam Hussein did at least one positive thing during his reign: “By subjecting the Kurds to genocide he gave them a solidarity they had not known before” and thus gave them the impetus to create one of the most liberal societies in the Middle East.) In an essay on Benjamin Franklin Hitchens also gets to employ another of his favourite themes, the deism of the Founding Fathers, and a favourite – for good reason – line, of Franklin’s, about religion: “Created sick, and then commanded to be well”. This is not to say that Hitchens’s writing is repetitive but that when he thinks a point is worth pressing he isn’t afraid to do so. In this case he is especially right to, when considering, as he highlights, that even the great Mark Twain couldn’t see the satire in Franklin’s maxims.

All of the things that have come to be associated with Hitchens are present in this book from Marx and Orwell to Larkin and alcohol, but the most ‘controversial’ piece in the book is entitled, almost as if it has a label reading ‘Inflammable’ attached, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. It is amazing that this little feuilleton written for Vanity Fair attracted so much attention because Hitchens explicitly states that he doesn’t mean that there are no great women comedians but that women do not have the same need as men to be funny in the first place and, secondly, if you don’t think there’s even a hint of irony in it or you can’t shrug it off – then you aren’t funny (darling).

Articles of this nature, though, could give some readers pause to question why Hitchens writes fairly diversionary pieces like this one for Vanity Fair, to which one could add that surely no one should be serious all the time. But why Vanity Fair? A fine publication in many respects but, if you were to look at their website or a random issue, it seems jarring that Hitchens writes for a magazine still so eager to support the Kennedy dynasty and the myth of Camelot – especially considering that, of their legacy, he has this to say: “The reputation of the Kennedy racket is now dependent on a sobbing effort of will: an applauding chorus demanding that the flickering Tinkerbell not be allowed to expire”.

The result of this trade-off, however, is that he is able to write essays that might not otherwise reach such large audiences, such as most of the ‘Postcard’ pieces mentioned above and a tour de force essay in praise of the King James’s Bible and its influence on the vernacular – but only as a stepping stone and liberating force along the progress of mankind towards permanently throwing off the shadow of Rome, and that its abandonment by the Church of England goes to show that religion is a man-made construct “with inky human fingerprints” smeared over its divine body.

The essays in this collection are meant to enrage those who disagree with Hitchens and delight those who find his arguments convincing; but he never asks blind fealty of us – the title of the book gives it all away – and, as he remarks of a Lincoln scholar, he treats us like grownups, with minds of our own. Decades will pass before the permanence of the Hitch’s (if you’ll forgive one use of the overtly familiar colloquialism) work is decided, but if this is his last book, as he fondly quotes of Benjamin Franklin, “litera script manet”. The written word shall remain.

Funny Peculiar: An Interview with Dave Stordy

In the first of a double bill, Declan Tan interviews struggling comic Dave Stordy about Bobby Davro, Sedgways and the bleaker side of stand-up

Dave Stordy is a comedian. So is Richard Herring, but we’ll get to him in a bit. Right now, Stordy is writing a bit revolving around our quite casual and uneventful meeting, as I sit there watching him. He suggests I use it, I tell him: yeah. So I use it:

Stordy: ‘So I was talking to this journalist the other day, right… true story, true story.’

As he types onto his laptop, he tells me that he is trying to be funny because, he says, “there is a massive difference between trying to be funny and actually being it”. As we sit on his faded 80s two-piece sofa suite, over hot teas and pink wafers, he says these words with undue stress, force-feeding non-existent wisdom into the cliché. His wild lisp helps him none.

“The last time I was on stage I had to take out my notes from my inside pocket. I just lost myself. For some performers, being on stage is a sort of transcendence from all the bullshit, you know, losing your ‘self’. But I just simply lost my place.” He has these bullets of eyebrows and shifts them up and down as he speaks, like air quotes that have landed on his head, somehow rendering his very face an irony.

“For some comics that might be an exciting innovation, to do that, you know, pull a small piece of paper from your inside pocket and start reading it, like Stewart Lee or someone. But for me it was kind of a nightmare. I forgot what I wanted to say and just panicked. That was five months ago, the night of Halloween. I’ve performed since, but that night has haunted me.”

Stordy: ‘So this journalist calls me up one day and comes round to my flat a few days later for an interview. He thought it might be a good idea… he saw me do a show at Halloween. Nightmare, it was.’

Stordy was right. I had called him up after tracking him down through an ‘open mic’ night based in Leytonstone, looking for a struggling comic that I might be able to speak with, someone who might help me get to grips with the bleaker side of a stand-up comedy career. And Leytonstone was indeed bleak. Especially for Stordy who, five months previous, had died at the hands of 40-odd fancy-dressed revellers, and unforgiving hecklers, in a pumpkin-lit pub just down the High Road.

I went to meet him at his flat in east London. During our chat his lisp occasionally faltered, making me think he was merely in character. It would be a committed stunt for a minor performer, but perhaps telling of his delusion. It was hard to decide on its authenticity. Anyway, we sat down for a talk during which he would occasionally hand me scraps of paper with his latest routine scribbled upon them, bits that his typing fingers were too slow to document.

Stordy: ‘So this journo comes round, drinking my tea, eating my biscuits, “objectively” documenting the gradual obliteration of modern civilised society whilst simultaneously and unwittingly enabling the rampant, murderous spread of Western imperialism and the eventual enslavement of all creatures via its coded language of even parts propaganda, fear and Public Relations misinformation, before begging me for more pink wafers…”

Dave Stordy embarked on his comedy career, he tells me, after having once been caught impersonating his headmaster behind his back, à la Bobby Davro, a man renowned for starting his career in much the same manner. But he detests the comparison; Davro happens to be his unsuspecting arch-nemesis.

Maybe getting detention wasn’t a good enough reason to go into stand-up comedy, I suggest to him, as he momentarily lowers the voice recorder I have introduced to the table. He looks wistfully out of the window, perhaps imagining Monsieur Davro’s uneasy smile reflected back at him.

“He got six beltings for what he done. Maybe that’s what made him take it further. Now, I don’t condone corporal punishment or even like being compared to Davro. In fact I hate him. Yeah, he’s an easy target. That’s why I hate him. Though I admit to feeling a certain affinity to him just because of our shared profession.”

Profession, I ask. So you’re paid for your work? I ask because we’re in an above-ground hole.

“Well, often not,” Dave tells me, turning away from the spectre of Davro, “I wasn’t paid for my last gig because I left the stage when they started throwing their plastic cups. I always told myself, I’d never leave the stage unless they threw glass. Like Malcolm Tracey said. In fact I’m not sure if they qualified but the cups seemed a close enough representation. Anyway, I have been paid before, I don’t like to discuss money. An artist shouldn’t have to. But yeah I make a bit of money off of it.”

And what of your influences, your inspirations?

Stordy: (Pause)

I had angled a similar question at Richard Herring who I’d contacted after that first call to Stordy, as a relief from the grim failings of East End open mic performers. As a success of the business, Herring requires little introduction to connoisseurs of comedy, especially those lucky enough to have caught the Lee and Herring double act during its TV and radio prime in the 90s. Since then both Lee and Herring have fashioned formidable solo careers, producing original and innovative work alternately achieving cult and mainstream success in the 00s.

With a quietly considered response, Herring says: “I think you get influenced by everything, good and bad, and the list would be too long and complex to have any kind of meaning. As a child I was very impressed with Monty Python and Pete and Dud and The Young Ones. But if the influence was anything it was about the importance of being your own person and creating stuff that was yours. But throughout life you meet people, read books, see shows which shape you as a person.”

How about acts you respect, I asked: “I like any comedian who can surprise me. Originality is again the key. I tend to like the ones who have thought of something that I haven’t thought of, or expressed it more clearly, than the ones who tell me stuff I already know. But sometimes an observational comedian using the more basic comedic formulas can still be skilful enough to surprise me and in some ways I find that more impressive than some of the more avant-garde comics. A comedian has to keep moving and not get too predictable. Not many achieve that over a whole career.”

Not many achieve that at all, I think, as I return to Stordy and ask him the same question. He is still typing. He thinks about it.

Stordy: (Continue) ‘… not realizing as he picks at them from a cracked plate, that his pink wafers are a sickly metaphor for the present condition of his racket, the news media and journalism at large: pretty, yes, but effectively soiled, saturated by artificial flavours and colourings, unsuitable for those with nut allergies, layered meager layer upon meager layer, both wafer and cream being largely devoid of nutrition and unaware of their vain arrogance… yet he sups them up one by one, dipping them into his warm brew… yum yum yum yum yum…’

Stordy stops typing a moment and answers: “I read Michael McIntyre’s autobiography. I thought it was good. How the ghostwriter got his voice into the words and everything. I learnt a lot from that book. Mostly that ghostwriting for Michael McIntyre could hold a future for me. I’ve studied all of the comedian’s autobiographies, marking the comparisons with them and myself, with a blue pen in the margins. But when I’m not reading I’m usually writing. I’m preparing a website at the moment as well. D’ya wanna see?”

As I contain dubious excitement, I ask if he’s ever thought about quitting. As soon as I ask the question I feel as if I shouldn’t have, as if somehow I had accused him of being shit without having seen all the available evidence. The question interrupts his tapping of the laptop keys. He looks back for Davro.

“Yeah I did once or twice. I quit for about a year in 2005. That was a bad year. I felt like a dog with three legs.”

Ah, I say to myself, Herring may have some sonorous advice for you, Dave. I read him the transcript from my conversation with Herring, specifically the question: Has performing ever felt futile and fruitless?

“All the time, at regular intervals. It is quite futile in many ways and as a performer your mood is very much affected by your last gig, or how things are going right now.” Stordy certainly fell into this category.

Herring’s words may offer Dave some hope, I think quietly, so I continue to read them: “You just have to push on through it and luckily (and kind of sadly) a good gig can banish the blues immediately.”
I look at Dave, who looks at Davro. I go on, feeling like Stordy’s personal coach: “It’s a tough job in many ways and there is little security to it and one is always fearful that there might be better ways to fill one’s time or that one might have lost it. But the same is true of any job and life in general. You just have to keep on pushing on or lie down and die! Nothing we do has any real meaning in the long term and we’re just specks of dust on a rock hurtling through space. What keeps us going?”

“Specks of dust,” Dave repeats. “Cheers for that!”

Stordy: ‘…the wafers jettisoning useless pink specks of dried cream and wafery dust to the floor, castoff, useless and forgotten… I know what you’re thinking: a dick with Chomsky jokes…’’

Effectively disregarding the previous five minutes of conversation and enlightened advice, save for that last sentence, Dave swivels his laptop around and gives me a virtual tour of the website he is designing. It is self-consciously rubbish, filled with hand-drawn scribbles that make no sense and lead the visitor through a pointless labyrinth of links, displaying either doodles of oversized heads on jelly-like bodies, with speech bubbles coming out of them saying things like ‘I am a man’s head’, or crudely sketched pieces of toast saying: ‘Someone buttered my crust.’ An unintentional farce?

“Comedians’ websites are usually intolerable and sycophantic in their attempts to make you chuckle or buy their DVDs or go watch their shows or whatever. I try and take the piss out of that. Like making observations about observational comedy, which actually is a trick ‘cause it’s kinda the same deal but makes you feel superior.”

So, what made you go back to comedy after quitting?

“The inner voice. The one telling me that I had no other prospects. Just the idea of getting back on stage, writing, all of it, filled me with hope all over again. And when I got back up there I didn’t feel like that three-legged dog anymore, if anything I felt like a three-legged man. A maverick, an outsider, though perhaps over-equipped and possibly useless.”

What do you mean by over-equipped?

He has been clicking excitedly through the gallery of doodles and copyright images of Dixy chicken burgers. “I mean that most audiences only want to go to a show to laugh and drink and have a good time, to get away from the horrible shit in their lives. I want them to think. To question their values and their morals. To hold up a mirror to them and our decaying society, to analyse its workings. And then maybe during that, to laugh.” He makes one last click: “Have a look at this one.”

He points to a finely detailed drawing of a lone Griffin fighting a flock of Boobries. The caption reads: “Get your paws off my Boobries.”

It was all a little depressing. I felt like Mickey to Stordy’s Rocky. Trying to get to the core of it, if even just to understand Dave and his near masochistic self-sacrificing to his uninterested audience, I’d asked Herring what it was that he strived for in his shows.

“Mainly to make people laugh,” he says, “But along with that I suppose my main goal is doing so in an original way and hopefully also producing something that will make people think and maybe challenge their world view.”

So there’s some kind of ideology behind your routines, something that you’re consciously trying to get across?

“Sometimes. Other times not.  Each show and routine tries to do different things. But I guess if there is a common theme it is challenging preconceptions and making people think about what they believe. If something is true I think you can question it and it will still hold up. If it’s not true then questioning it can help you realise that. By making people laugh you can get their guard down a little bit and discuss things that you might not be able to do or tackle subjects that might otherwise make people clam up.”

Dave had similar reasons, albeit from his cave of delusion where nationwide fame and critical acclaim were just around the corner, adding: “I find it interesting to explore whether the audience are laughing at a joke just because they get it, or because it’s actually funny.”

His principal jokes, he tells me, come to him when he is: a) lowering onto the toilet; or b) smoking a cigarette out of his window. “I get my inspiration mostly during the moments that I am pulling down my trousers to sit on the bog, or when I’ve just started a cigarette and can’t reach a pen, as I smoke by the window, so as not to offend my girlfriend’s health. These seem to be the moments where neither a pen nor a bit of paper are in sight. It is quite annoying. Since the time I hastily ran from the toilet midway through a poo, I have kept a notebook and a pen cellotaped to a piece of string dangling from the bathroom tiles. Since then I haven’t had any good ideas.”

“It’s a tough job and it’s not easy to get that many people to like you,” says Herring, having unquestionably taken the role of sage for the current conversation with Stordy, “It’s only lazy comedians who coast on a wave of success and don’t put the work in that annoy me. And there are plenty of those at all levels. And it is possible to do something that is populist and also worthy. Tim Minchin and Morecambe and Wise spring to mind. I don’t have a problem if an act becomes popular. That is not what they should be judged by and there is no shame in success if achieved on the right terms.” It felt that this was Stordy’s central conflict. He seemed desperate for fame and seemed to merely use comedy as a vehicle on the road to it, without showing any respect for the medium or its followers.

Stordy: (Introduce segue into final bit)

A natural conclusion to any interview, discussion of the future usually seems a befitting end point and possibly one offering hope. So Dave, any plans for the future?

“I’m looking to invest in a Segway to help smooth out my act. The rhythm’s a bit jarring and staccato at the moment. It might be able to help me refine the sudden shifts from one topic to the next. At the end of one bit I’d get the Segway and ride it across the stage, maybe through the audience, venue permitting, and jump off to start the next bit. It’s an expensive joke though. About £4000 expensive. But you can’t put a price on innovation. I am worried about the health and safety repercussions though. You can’t do nuffin’ no more. It’s political correctness gone mad.”

Despite the price, I tell him, it seems like a cheap joke. So if it isn’t elaborate visual gags, what is it that makes good comedy?

Stordy: (Ride Segway in)

“I used to think comedy was like blowing smoke into a long stream of speed-walkers’ faces,” Stordy tells me, “You know, annoying and confrontational. But the more I look at it, it seems more like blowing smoke into the faces of an oncoming pack of cyclists. Pretty futile, if not incidentally mildly amusing.”

Not the strongest point to end our time together. Richard, we’ll leave it to you:

“I think most good comedy is about truth and honesty,” says Herring, “But some of it is about lies. There are no rules.”

Stordy: (Ride Segway out)

Hit By The Eidôlon: Abstraction as Phenomenal Experience

Manic Episode 2MANIAC (Multi-media Artist Network Idea Exchange and Collaboration) is a loose collective of twenty-three international artists connected principally through social media. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve introduces MANIAC’s second exhibition, first shown at Sacramento’s Brickhouse Art Gallery in June 2011. Manic Episode 2 explores the relationship between image, material and space in media such as site-specific sculpture, formal abstract painting and cutting-edge video. Many thanks to the author for permission to reprint

When the very first perception of an image is linked to a structure of reproduction, then we are dealing with the realm of the phantoms.

— Jacques Derrida

Democritus’ theory of perception depends on the claim that eidôla or images, thin layers of atoms, are constantly sloughed off from the surfaces of macroscopic bodies and carried through the air… the object seen impresses the air by the eidôla, and the compacted air thus conveys the image to the eye.

— Sylvia Berryman ‘Democritus’, Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy

I can only channel and find out how these forms want to be arranged to reveal themselves. It is not only the forms that are important but also the emptiness in between them. Emptiness, is not a background, it is an active force that gives birth to shape and forms. Emptiness creates the conditions for the existence of forms and their relationships.

— Waltraud Wahida Azhari

Jean Scott Mirror Mirror
Jean Scott 'Mirror Mirror' (2010) Oil and hair on acrylic, 12" x 24", copyright Jean Scott

Is anything there, we ask of the world of phantoms, the eidôlon that hover over and in us: images, ideas, abstraction. How rude, imperfect, or false are our experiences of perception? 1 Put your hand through the image and what is on the other side? Plato believed we were akin to subjects chained to a wall in a cave whose reality consisted only of the shadow-projections of things that were passing in front of a fire behind them. The Pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (460-370 BCE) used the term eidôla (Greek for eidos “form”)—where we get the word image—to describe perception as the result of films or “air imprints” that emanated from objects to eye. An Atomist, he believed matter consisted of indivisible particles that were indestructible and in constant motion. “These images, or ‘eidôla’ fly through the air and bang into one’s eyes, from which one learns about the properties of the objects that threw off these eidôla.” 2 Empty space is what lies between atoms. In other words, emptiness is palpable because “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” The shapes and size of atoms differed, depending on the object and “connections were explained by material links in which single atoms were supplied with attachments: some with hooks and eyes others with balls and sockets.” 3

In a way, Democritus’ remarkable account of eidôla reminds us of the living physical substrate of our perceptions. Imagining a film, fire or “husk” that floats from object to eye is a way to move through MANIAC’s Manic Episode 2: Hit by the eidôlon. It is an exhibition that delights in the reanimation of the physical interaction of object and viewer, as if the gallery space is filled not with objects but with the eidôla emanating from them.

Much of the work has roots in Hard Edge or Geometric Abstraction and Minimalism yet these works contain an added conceptual twist. For instance, Roland Orepuk’s 4 bright yellow and white rectangles are all in state of distress and exposure. It is hard not to see them as surgical interventions into the master himself, Josef Albers iconic Homage to the Square: With Rays, 1959. The paintings are flayed and deconstructed, turned into a materiality of flayed flesh (canvas) and bone (wood frame). The bright yellow and white painted rectangles bleed or rip as they are exposed for what they are: not abstract images but constructed objects hanging on a wall. Eidôla as force of revelation and destruction.

Abstraction emerged in Modernism as a withdrawal from figuration, but today our lives are so abstracted, that any image (of art, of thought, of reality, of dreams) is a comment on the texture of representation itself. In other words, as books, relationships, photographs, and even the process of mechanical reproduction itself, are all made to live in the virtual realm of 0s and 1s, revelation emerges in the “matter” of any object or image’s production.

Waltraud Wahida Azhari’s 5 paintings, originally drawings on paper, were transferred as “exact copies” onto canvas “using pencil, charcoal, adhesive tape, and white to keep the forms from bleeding… The green geometric shapes are slightly raised and appear as a little ‘relief’ above the primer… ” In between the image and the eye is the hint of physicality (the “relief”). Perhaps it is also a ball and socket that floats and makes an impression on the eye.

The image of Saddam Hussein’s Italian suited torso “giving one of his endless televised speeches” in Ayad Sinawai’s untitled painting of 2010 was impressed on him in childhood. The image returns here: he decapitates the phantom and turns the blunted torso into a grid of silence: the body as “meat,” butchered like many of Saddam Hussein’s constituents.

On the other hand, Kevin Daly’s simple decals—plastic, manufactured imprints of his paintings, or reproductions as moveable phantoms, are placed along the edge of the architectural space where they fold and reveal the physical space. The space between becomes his subject. They are not flat demonstrations of paintings so much as markers of the territory in which art is displayed.“I’m becoming more interested in the actual architectural space (material space) outside the painting without completely abandoning its image or picture quality.” 6

Naro Oran Oblique Commonality
Naro Oran, 'Oblique commonality 1' (2009) mixed media, digital art, 8"x10", copyright Naro Oran

All of this is about the reframing of perception, the DNA of Modernism. Discover the new, the never-has-been; break from the old, the wizened, the weary. But today art is produced in the self-conscious context of capitalism’s hunger for the new and the recycling of prior movements and themes. Researching for this exhibition, I accidentally wrote “Geometric Expressionism” instead of “Geometric Abstraction,” since so many of the painted works seemed to quote from this tradition, and discovered that there really is an odd, singular movement of the 00s—manifesto and all—labeled “Geometric Expressionism” concocted by one lone individual.

It [Geometric Expressionism] doesn’t propose everything is a social construct that must be regarded in order to see the truth. Instead of rejecting all that has gone before, Geometric Expressionism seeks to learn from it. In other words, while taking giants down at the knees is one way to get a different view, so is standing on their shoulders. 7

Indeed, what shoulders is the work in Hit by the eidôlon standing on and why? Steve Baris’s Nested Forms, are acrylic paint on irregularly shaped Plexiglas panels, which “address my long-running fascination with the intersections of form, structure and notional space” [emphasis added]. He is working with the skeletal refraction of the illusion of three-dimensional space achieved not simply through mimicry but through the “juxtapositions of opaque, metallic surfaces with more translucent paint.” This activates the physical tension of geometric abstraction—“the different spatial registers, one projecting forward, the other inward,” so that “a painting is finished when it seems to occupy two places at the same time.” 8

Dynamism. The back and forth between image and eye, viewer and object, object and the process of witnessing one’s own self- construction as if the image is a thing—a husk emanating toward the eye. Let’s face it, our perceptions are rude as Democritus suggested. They exist within a history of recycling and echo as in Kevin Finklea‘s humorous re-use of the broken off “limbs” and paint from his previous work. He reuses parts of old pieces as living forms, almost as though they have an idea or will of their own: “I actively let these reminders suggest the form of what I made.” 9 Attached to the wall, they reach out like abstract versions of Robert Gober’s phantom limbs.

Finklea stresses what many of the artists in this exhibition believe in: the will of form to find or make itself. Suzan Shutan uses recycled material to “comment in part upon the accumulation of cultural debris,” but like Finklea, her fluid linked paper loops “become their own subjective universe… ” as they hang like bulging vines from the ceiling, penetrating the space. She too lets the form create the image as an experience of the space.

Susan Knight does not make images but relationships. Knight reminds us of the fragile state of our ecological context, in particular, water, by transforming minimalist sculpture into an ecological insight. The tube in her piece references “scientific collection apparatuses” that are made with red acrylic ink “because water is life blood.” 10 She takes us out of the gallery.

Karen Ostrom The Hunter
Karen Ostrom 'The Hunter' (2005) Chromogenic print, 30" x 60", copyright Karen Ostrom

Hit by the eidôlon is about transforming abstraction into a physical dialogue, reminding us of the physicality of perception. In this sense it is really one of those shows you must travel to and in as if slipping along the globules of perception in the phantom image of eidôla because every image is in action and reaction: canvases are not flat, space is not a static site for viewing. Even seemingly hard edged shapes do more than just sit there. They are meant to make us “part of the space.” (Waltraud Wahida Azhari)

The point of Hit by the eidôlon is to feel the abstraction of materials, not as formalist exercise but as dynamic “things” or concretized relationships between self, object, space, world where the tension between armature and its content constructs the very notion of revelation as dialogue with the space. Where abstraction is the hit that meets and “hooks” the eye with the very materiality of our perception as if “material links… were supplied with attachments.” In other words, abstraction as phenomenal experience.

Further Resources:

  1. Eidôlon is from eidôla: Greek for image, phantom, apparition, ghost. “He (Democritus] distinguished between a rude, imperfect and therefore false perception and a true one.” ↩
  2. The author is referring to Epicurus, a student of Democritus.  ↩
  3. Democritus, Testimonia, DK 68 A 80, DK A 37, DK 68A. ↩
  4. On his website there is a reference to his belonging to a genre known in France as Reductive Art. ↩
  5. Waltraud Wahida Azhari, Artist’s statement: “Experiences in space, emptiness and light.” Email correspondence with author.  ↩
  6. Kevin Daly statement, email correspondence with author. ↩
  7. Hiromi Yamamura, “Geometric Expressionism and the Progression of Moderinity,” As a “movement” it is full of contradictions and has little to offer except as symptom and testament to the author’s laudable desire to theorize his work. It is basically a combination of Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Geometric Abstraction, retaining a link to recognizable form,” and “it doesn’t seek to liberate emotion, it seeks to restrain it in order to heighten emotional tension and facilitate a more logical consideration of a concept.” ↩
  8. Steven Baris, “Statement, Nested Form #8”. Email correspondence with author.  ↩
  9. Kevin Finklea, “Statement for Sacramania”. Email correspondence with author. ↩
  10. Susan Knight’s statement. Email correspondence with author. ↩

Performance and the Art of Lesley Dill

Lesley Dill Rush
Lesley Dill, 'Rush', 2006-07. Metal foil, organza, and wire; dimensions variable

Lesley Dill’s work begins with language and extends, through many shapes and forms, to the body and the community. Thyrza Nichols Goodeve’s essay ‘Words have Wings that Fly from the Mouths of Others’ (1, see footnotes below) first appeared in the catalogue for Dill’s 2009/2010 retrospective I Heard a Voice. Many thanks to the author and Hunter Museum of American Art for permission to republish

In the end, then, we’re all readers. And the act of reading is an active choice to receive – and also to participate, to imagine, to interpret. It’s a kind of gift we make to writers, in fact – just as much as their writing may seem a kind of gift to us. We choose to let their words in. To let them “flame amazement” in our minds, where they may indeed prove incendiary. – Stephen J. Bottoms (2)

I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. – Roland Barthes (3)

Poesies (Greek): to make or to create.

There is the moving image. There is the sculpture. There is the pull of a ribbon. There is the photograph. There is the sculpture of an open hand, long colored threads attached in bunches to the fingertips, pulled by gravity to the floor. There is the wire that is woven, the photographs that are scratched, the foil that is cut, the obsessive repetitive gestures of the making, the duration and the weeks and months it takes. There is the text, the words, the repletion. The constant push and pull between, and yes, among images and words, reaching beyond the frame. Nothing is ever quite content to rest. Hesitations, requests and suggestions of movement and meaning. Diaphanous spectacles and shifting displays, in the gallery and the museum and elsewhere in live performance and opera. All in motion. All about language. All as visual art.

Lesley Dill has made art in collaboration with the poetry of Emily Dickinson since 1990. Correction, Leslie Dill has made art out of, and with, Dickinson’s language, not her poetry, since 1990. Rarely does she work with an entire poem but instead culls line fragments –

A single screw of flesh is all that pins the soul. (4)

A single screw… is part of a poem that is 20 lines long. But for Dill its power is as a solitary sentence which becomes a kind of cloth, or a ribbon, draped and reprocessed.

Dill drinks in the intelligibility that teases from the tips of comprehension. Her disregard for the literary tradition of the poem as a whole puts her in the same hashish garden where Baudelaire dreamed modernity and Dickinson drew large breaths. The garden without paths where, “in prose and poetry she explored the implications [of language] breaking the law just short of breaking off communication with a reader”. (5) Dill “breaks” or surgically separates lines of poems like slices of skin, recycling and repeating lines, reusing them, a bit like a lyrical, less narrative, Gertrude Stein. Stein may seem like an arbitrary connection but the first chapter of Susan Howe’s landmark book My Emily Dickinson, actually discusses Dickinson and Stein as literary mates, who were “…clearly the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose”. (6)

Of interest for our discussion is Gertrude Stein’s notion of language. For Stein, language was not a vehicle of communication or expression but was a material with volume and mass like clay or paint. Decoration was not what counted, i.e., the razzle dazzle of description or vocabulary, but the way meaning could be built by accretion over time by what she called “repetition as insistence.

[S]ometime there will be a history of all of them, that sometime all of them will have the last touch of being a history of being, a history of them can give to them, sometime then there will be a history of each of them, of all the ways any one can know them, of the ways each one is inside her or inside him, of all the ways anything of them comes out from them. (7) – Gertrude Stein

Dill’s use of repetition is not formal like Stein’s. It works like a mantra. Dill is a mystic with an interest in Buddhism, Judaism, and the work of the American Transcendentalists. Stein’s method pounds meaning from the rat-tat of simple pronouns, nouns, prepositions signifiers, edited frame by frame. She does not use descriptive language. Meaning is never made by metaphor, but by physical accretion of word by word, amassing like the rings of a redwood tree at is ages from year to year. Repetition builds, insists and history is written. (8)

Stein, the writer, makes from language.
Dickinson, the poet, creates language.

Lesley Dill, the artist, is a creature of language. She grew up in it. She inhabits it. She is and becomes it. But it pushes her to something else. To perform Dickinson’s poems across, in, and, as a range of materials;

live performance

This is repetition as insistence across media as well as language.

The Pleasure of the Text

It is the abrasions I impose on the fine surface:
I read on, I skip, I look up, I dip in again. – Roland Barthes. The Pleasure of the Text. (9)

In his book The Pleasure of the Text published in France in 1973, translated into English in 1975, Roland Barthes discusses texts of “pleasure” – plaisir – and texts of “bliss” – jouissance. Dill’s experience of reading the volume of Dickinson’s complete poems, given to her by her mother on her 40th birthday, is clearly jouissance (ecstasy, bliss). Ecstasy is a theme that returns again and again in Dickinson’s poetry, and is in Dill’s experience of reading Dickinson. “I had imagistic epiphanies that almost frightened me they were so strong”. (10) What Dill describes, and re-enacts in her art, are moments of reading, when a writer’s words implode inside and out and through the body in a manner only poets have been able to capture.

Reading is a verb. At its best, it expresses communication and connection of such exquisite recognition and contact that it is love, but not just love, it is being in love, but not just being in love, it is the beloved: mirror, soul, essence giving flight in those words. For Barthes, reading, which is writing, is like a drug; it is why readers are always addicts. This is why Dill returns to Dickinson several times and why it is never a return or a repetition. She is always after the language as transcendent action on and in the body: desire, insight, bristling, burning, ecstatic, implosion, spinning-moment of mind-altering (brain changing) engagement where text and body are pierced, made into one, obliterated, fused.

Dill is about poetry as text, entering the body from page into the body, and then out again into objects. She acts it. Not just in performances but also as a drive, the gesture of affect and meaning, spreading its way like a band of light. Her art is made of delicate materials and ethereal images that breathe through language, taking us elsewhere and roughing us up. The phrases she has read, and that are her material, carve into what cannot be seen, what cannot be touched, what cannot be understood, but are what is felt in a flash (jouissance) –

reading as contact
as gift
as performance
a poem as a Punch, 1999 in the mouth or a Flinch, 2000.

Like Walt Whitman, Dickinson’s partner in time, he says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”. Dill too, contains multitudes. And contradictions. Her performances are like poetry readings but in them the human body replaces paper, and the poems are repeated as well as written on scrolls that are pulled from mouths and attached to eyelids. Her sculptures are made of paper and materials such as horsehair and wire, yet wire is then woven into poetry for her photographs, Dill treats bodies as a kind of paper, and the process as a form of reading:

I’d paint on people – friends and volunteers – and then I’d photograph them. I am attracted to photography because it literally makes a human being into a human piece of paper. It makes them frontal. It makes for a reading. (12)

Lesley Dill Hunger and Desire
Lesley Dill, 'Hunger and Desire', 1998. Oil, thread, wax on photo; 49 x 77 inches

The Object as Bridge

Fragile Bridge (2005), made out of horsehair and wire, is a visceral piece. (13) The piece hangs on the wall yet one does not feel it as a wall piece. We approach it and feel it. The horsehair droops from the wired text to the floor. It is attached to woven words that stretch in awkward “handwriting” from left to right across the wall. The piece is at once mural, sculpture, poem. As we walk, we read – absorbing both the tactility of the piece, the smell or the olfactory associations we have with horsehair and the images and feelings of the words. We are reading in action – bodies in motion. “reading was a connective tissue,” (14) the fragile bridge of creation and connection Dill had with her father. In the beginning was not the word but the reading of a word that had several personalities in her family. Dill’s mother taught speech at the high school the artist attended, so for Dill, words were not just things that communicated meaning but things that sounded, carried melody, that had their own physicality and skins. A word could be clunky or impatient; a sentence as lyrical and crisp as the sound of snow. From her father, Dill discovered language wore many outfits. What he said was layered and shifted, conflicted, came and went from elsewhere because he read and heard and spoke to the world as a schizophrenic:

but do not tense up. He was beloved, a very kind man…
He knew I understood. He would slant the language towards me. I feel that I grew up in a psychologically bilingual family. For me words existed naturally in duplicate, triplicate and quadruplicate context. There was an inherent meaning, a secret meaning, and a surface meaning.

So for the young Dill, words did not greet the world like dutiful citizens but scratched at the tips of the tongue, drifting and colliding into new territory, making new worlds. Language was not just story or communication but sound and split crystal. It could not only travel along multiple tracks, but breathe and thread itself into material.

And when her mother gave Dill the book of Dickinson’s poetry, reading it completely atomized her world.

Dickinson’s language released something in my unconscious mind. My response was not tied to her content, but to the immediate sense of feeling ‘lined up’ with the experience of her words. I’m interested in the ‘alchemy’ of language, the uncertainty of meaning and the resonance within our bodies when a metaphor clicks.

But also

It’s when you eat something
I felt the words were in my body the words came I felt my life from within.

Words are digested. They become flesh and skin. Words heal and scar. They are the skin. They are what slice it off. We are blood and light. a poem.

of brilliance
of knowledge
of transcendence
of knowledge
out of body

Dill exteriorized and interior experience of language and returned it to the audience as a fragile bridge she and we walk together through museum, gallery, book, live performance. And “We choose to let their words in. To let them ‘flame amazement’ in our minds, where they may indeed prove incendiary.” (17) And she has been set on fire to create outside of this art arena, this self of hers and ours and Dickinson’s, to a different kind of performance and reading. The kind of reading that becomes a listening, to be read, heard, released and brought back in from.

And your very flesh shall be a great poem. – Walt Whitman (18)

Tongues on Fire

In the year 2000 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Dill produced an extended community project created from research, listening, singing, writing, and reading, that has had an effect on all of Dill’s work in the ‘00s. The project, called Tongues on Fire was different , quite special and carried its own aura. As Arlene Raven states,

We ponder an explanation of sacred language that Lesley has found while preparing to launch her community project in Winston-Salem. Language itself, as consecration and prayer, is three-dimensional and rooted in the yet unsaid. (19)

Dill was invited to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art [SECCA] to participate in a residency program sponsored by the museum’s Artists and Community series. Since 1994 this series had brought artists to the Piedmont region of North Carolina to work with the community on collaborative projects. Dill was an interesting choice because her work is generally so private and hermetic. What would an artist who makes such intimate works as White Threaded Poem Girl, 1996, Punch, 1999, or Girl With Crown, 1998, do with a community, especially one as diverse, urban and Southern as Winston-Salem’s? Dill turned to the community and treated it like a collection of poems.

Dill has always referred to herself as a “word collector”. A collector does not read in the traditional sense, but selects and cuts, like a gardener weeding from bushels full of possibilities. In order to collect the words of this community, Dill integrated her skills as a reader of texts into the skill of a listener of people. She visited schools, libraries, churches, bookstores, placing articles in local newspapers, did interviews on the radio, hung posters in neighborhoods. SECCA also set up email and voice mail boxes for the community to leave responses.

Public tongues. Others’ tongues. A community instead of a book. Dill had been mining, for the most part, from the same personal volume of poetry for a decade, poetry from one of the most lauded introverts in American literature. But in 2000 Lesley Dill became an actor out in the world. Her words were not epiphanies driven from her reading poets, but via performance within the language of a community. This was no simple new assignment but a transformation of her work from the infinite interiority of the one (Dill, Dickinson or the poet, the viewer) to the performance of a profoundly public interiority. At each event, Dill worked with the language of intimacy to break down barriers. She shared her visionary experience, turning it into a mode of research, becoming a collector of visions:

It’s the language of visions – be it in dreams or unusual sensory experiences, spontaneous vocalizations, or uncontrolled body movements – that I was interested in investigating in the community of Winston-Salem… (20)

She received 700 visionary statements. Those were not her own, nor of dead poets, but voices – alive.

These stories revealed how complex and how simple this mysticism is. Each shared experience had a context of complication with acceptance of the range of life. It’s neither sweet nor sentimental… it’s not one pure point of understanding. It’s rich – it mirrors life that way. (21)

One particular community in Winston-Salem: the Emmanuel Baptist Church (22) whose Reverend John Menedez, part Apache, part Yoruba was himself a particularly gifted spiritual “seer”, collaborated with Dill. The diminutive New York City female artist-outsider – white, blonde, reserved New England archetype – from a mystical, Buddhist, Episcopalian, Jewish tradition, collected experiences of inexplicable bliss or all-knowingness, and then had an African American choir “that can be traced to slaves of Gullah descent who arrived on the continent from Sierra Leone West Africa, as captives destined to work on the South Carolina rice plantations” (23) transform them into performance, into song. Yes, as the Reverend said to her, “Lesley, we accept you as you are”. They met and through a series of conversations and shared experiences, created the most ecstatic aspect of the collaboration.

A huge and varied amount of work evolved from Tongues on Fire – billboards, spiritual sings woven of the community visions, a documentary film, two publications, including the original 700 vision statements and, in many ways, all subsequent exhibitions, from Tremendous World, 2007, to the opera Divide Light, 2008. (24)

After this community project, pieces such as Rise, 2006-07 [originally created for the exhibition, Tremendous World, 2007], are metaphor for the way performance has become more central to Dill’s work. The lone sculpture or hanging wall piece, or specific line of a poem, is no longer unattached, isolated, standing on the floor on its own, but attached literally, to voices and a public that are trying to take it elsewhere. (25)

As far apart in time and mode as Tongues on Fire, 2000, and Tremendous World, 2007, are – one an entire project, exhibition, and all-encompassing range of media, the other a series of sculptural installations – Dill has spoken about both as crucial aspects in the evolution of the most significant commitment to performance she will make in the ‘00s: her opera Divide Light. Although in content, Divide Light features images, language and works only from Dickinson and Dill, the entire process of making the opera is of course a community project, and a public exhibition in front of an audience. In Divide Light, the private voices of the gallery and the poet, the personal and the hermetic are shifted to a grand operatic display of interiority itself.

In the end, it is the tension in post 2000 exhibition works – performance culled from a community rather than just in front of an audience, or in the gallery, on a page, or from the poet’s private language – that has allowed Dill’s work to become a melody that fills rooms.

Lesley Dill Rise
Lesley Dill, 'Rise', 2006-07. Laminated fabric hand-dyed cotton paper metal silk organza; dimensions variable


  1. Lesley Dill.
  2. Stephen J. Bottoms, The Act of Reading (and the Fire Next Time),
  3. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, translated by Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975). (38)
  4. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson #263 edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown & Company. 1960).
  5. Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson (Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. 1985). (11)
  6. Ibid.
  7. Gertrude Stein, Negotiating an Hospitable Sublime, The Sublime of Intense Sociability: Emily Dickinson, H.D., and Gertrude Stein. Contributors: Shawn Alfrey (Lewisburg Pennsylvania: Bucknell University Press, 2000). (118). From
  8. Gertrude Stein, The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress (1906-08).
  9. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text. (38).
  10. Leslie Dill quoted in Tom Patterson’s essay, Opening to Unknown Nourishment: The Singular Trajectory of Lesley Dill; exhibition Tremendous World, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007.
  11. You May Laugh but I feel
within me suddenly strange
voice of god and handles
Dont’s thirst and message
Of slow memories that disappear
Across a fragile bridge (Salvador Espriu)
  12. Lesley Dill, quoted in exhibit catalog, Lesley Dill, A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (11)
  13. It is a sister piece to Ann Hamilton’s 1993-1994 Tropos.
  14. Lesley Dill: “Reading was a connective tissue. With my father, there was reading on a different level. There was reading by inference, by listening. The kind of listening where you hear not just one word, the spoken word, but you hear underneath it and behind it; like tonality that one finds more in Asian languages.” We are all Animals of Language by Ed Robbins, 2007.
  15. Lesley Dill quoted in Dede Young’s conversation in exhibition catalog Tremendous World, Neuberger Museum of Art, 2007. (21).
  16. Lesley Dill quoted in Susan Krane’s essay, Read Me Like A Book; exhibition, Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (49)
  17. Stephen J. Bottoms.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Arlene Raven, Tell It Slant, in exhibition catalog, Lesley Dill: A Ten Year Survey, Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2002. (12)
  20. Dill in Krane, Lesley Dill. (49)
  21. Lesley Dill quoted in Singing Forth the Spirit, by Terri Dowell-Dennis in Tongues on Fire, SECCA, 2000.
  22. Ibid. (7)
  23. She also worked with 400 high school students in the Governor’s School West program, a special summer institute active since 1963, attended by selected students from all over the country. In 2001-02 her project, Interviews with Contemplative Minds, evolved out of a collaboration with the University of Colorado, the Naropa Institute, and the choral group Ars Nova in Boulder, Colorado.
  24. Dowell-Dennis in Tongues on Fire. (13)
  25. Divide Light is an extended and insistently repeatable operatic re-reading of Dickinson and Dill.
  26. The language embroidered on the banners in Rise are quotes from Tongues on Fire.

I Heard a Voice: The Art of Lesley Dill
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee
January 17-April 19, 2009

Essay: Wistfulness in These Strange Times

For philosophical counselor Andrew Taggart the pace, pressure and squeeze of contemporary life leaves no room for reflection. That necessary disquiet, however, may a more sustainable way to live

This morning I awoke in a wistful mood. The birdsong coming through my bedroom window reminded me of something softer and higher but also, and less faintly, of something long absent. When I’m feeling wistful, my mind gets older and, without my consent, returns to Larkin’s empty church. In ‘Church Going’, a poem set in the years following World War II, the speaker describes his experience in this once-sacred space. He steps inside, has a look around, yet remains outside its meaning. Recalling the old rituals, he says, “‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant” and hears “The echoes snigger briefly,” then wonders what ends church used to serve and pictures what aims, if any, it could fulfil in the coming years. Is it destined to become a relic? A ruin? In any case, “A shape less recognizable each week.”

During quiet moments, disquieted and contemplative, I come back to the poem, reading it silently and aloud, mumbling the words, certain that, if nothing else, it records with accuracy and feeling our historical moment. Walking beside the speaker who recognizes a divine aura but who has forgotten how to pray, we also intuit the absence of a previous way of life—the rituals and ceremonies we once knew, the words we once learned, the virtues we once possessed, the higher things we used to love—as well as the longing for a new, equally holy way of life amid the “unignorable silence.” The church may not express our spiritual sentiments, yet the ends it once fulfilled have not been entirely forgotten nor has it been turned–not yet anyway–into a museum or a tomb. My morning mood, the speaker’s reticent wonderment, our cultural moment: all these partake of the “no more,” the “not yet,” and the “what now.”

Oh, what now! Our state of confusion concerning how to live is revealed most clearly in our understanding of and our attitude toward work. In my philosophy practice, I hear plenty of creative types, lawyers, and investors speak about being at wits’ end and feeling burnt out. They are not alone. In an article that appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Mother Jones, coeditors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery claim that companies are in the midst of a “great speedup,” with each worker being asked to be more productive and to work longer hours so that the company won’t have to fire old employees or hire new ones. (Meanwhile, Bauerlein and Jeffrey also report that corporate profits are up 22 percent over the past four years.) This “great speedup” is taking place at the same time that organizations, in step with neoliberal doctrine, are hollowing themselves out, replacing full-time employees with a mélange of unpaid interns, in-house freelancers, per-project contractors, and highly paid consultants. In effect, this has meant that full-timers are now collaborating increasingly with strangers, allies, and rivals. Meetings are beginning to resemble meet-and-greets and speed dates and meet-ups. Name tags are obligatory.

The picture gets even darker when one combines the work-life scenario described above with the escalating responsibilities associated with family life. Given the increasing demands of the work world, it would seem natural that parents would devote less time to raising their children or would farm out the housework and child-rearing to nannies, cooks, tutors, day-planners, camp organizers, and housekeepers. Among wealthy professionals, this is no doubt the case, but the broader historical trend points in the opposite direction. According to a University of Southern California study cited by The New York Times, from 1965 to 2007 “the amount of child care time spent by parents at all income levels—and especially those with a college education—has risen ‘dramatically’ since the mid-1990s.” In my work with creative types, I have begun calling this three-fold situation—being damnably overworked, having to collaborate with freelance colleagues/rivals, and feeling the crushing demands of being good parents and caring spouses—“the work life crucible of the new economy.”

It is clear not just that this model for individual and social life is structurally unsound but also that it cannot be sustained indefinitely. In economic terms, the model is based (metaphorically, that is) on extending lines of credit, accumulating considerable debit, and deferring the day of reckoning until the next fiscal year. It is Greece personified. In psychological terms, the model leads to anger, anxiety, and depression; in sociological terms, to anomie and alienation; and in philosophical terms, to nihilism, that supreme form of meaninglessness and despair. Fuck it, why bother, get out, piss off.

At some point, though, we cannot consent to more, cannot be any more efficient or more productive or more motivated unless we know the reason why we are being asked to be more efficient, more productive, more motivated in the first place. We may be inclined to explain why modern work is structurally untenable by tracing, by means of a chain of efficient causes, the crisis back to neoliberalism or, if we are feeling especially ambitious, back even further to the rise of industrial capitalism. Yet though this answer would clarify our historical moment, it would fail to satisfy our deeper spiritual desire to know what meaningful work ought to look like in our time. For this, we would need to hit upon an explanation that moves in the direction of final ends: things valuable for their own sake, good-enough reasons for laboring and toiling and going on.

In Naming the Movement, my friend Keith Kahn-Harris explores our disquietude with the modern world and describes the non-hierarchical, anarchic forces that, should they manage to reflect upon their collective aims and initiatives, may be able to sustain themselves. In a way, Keith’s question is how thinkers who think aloud can learn to think together, how dancers can become a dance, how movers can become a movement. To name a collective sentiment, therefore, is to try to raise language to a poetic register in order to name our present complaints and constraints, to give voice to our sense of living in common (sensus communis), and to imagine how new rituals, practices, and forms of life could unfold.

I want also to discover a poetic language that can make sense of, without doing a disservice to, our historical moment. I am reminded of William Blake’s radiant thought that working is worshipping. It is a thought that travels across England from Blake to Carlyle and Ruskin and on through Gill and Coomaraswamy and that finds a home in the US with Wendell Berry and Peter Nadin. In 1992, the English ex-pat and the artist-farmer Nadin left the art world and went upstate to cultivate an art farm with his wife. He explains, “A carrot is not a work of art,” but they are “both results of the same process.” Can we, like Blake and Nadin, like Gill and Berry, find space in our lives for “re-animating” work, for reconnecting work with fine and excellent things, for seeing carrots and paintings as of a piece? After the death of God, the work-worship formula may sound nostalgic, conservative, and shamelessly New Agey, yet the Japanese tea ceremony says otherwise. It says that the most mundane objects—tea leaves and tea things—and the most ordinary practices like sitting and drinking can, to quote the poet Pindar out of context, be “raised up to the liquid sky.”

First, though, I want to dwell a little longer on our feeling of disquietude in order to understand it more fully. Our wistful mood flows from the incongruity between the modern world and our conceptual schema, from the latter’s inadequacy in the face of the former’s irreducible complexity. In the 21st century, for instance, “Anglican church” or “Catholic church” fails to pick out our punctual spiritual experiences, the “corporation” fails to make sense of our work experiences, the “bourgeois family” of our experiences of love or coupling, the “state” our understanding of politics. To cope with this irreducible complexity, our 21st-century response was to train scores of experts in theology, politics, economics, health care, nutrition science, risk management, executive leadership, and in other fields. Yet, more recently, our faith in expertise—our rants, our melancholy, our exhaustion—and thus in analytic knowledge has been brought into doubt not only by the economic collapse and the rise of terrorism, not just because of the glut of information and the prioritization of choice for its own sake over the choiceworthiness of things, but also by the erosion of virtually all forms of binding authority. All this has led, in the realm of politics, to the reactionary backlash—the Tea Party movement in the US, the English Defence League in the UK, the riots in north London—now playing out before us. The puzzle is that we no longer trust our basic concepts but neither do we grant legitimate authority to the expert class. And so, we have come to rely increasingly on sentiment, habits, cognitive biases, rules of thumb, siloing, and folk wisdom. The criterion we apply is not apodictic certainty; it is survivalism, a knack for getting by with whatever is we find at hand.

Yet, alongside the fervent nationalism and the ignorant armies, I feel stirrings of higher things. ‘Innisfree’ is not so far off. Neither is Walden. Thoreau still entreats us to simplify, thus giving words to a longing for elementals, thus enjoining us to live according to what is most essential to living well. In the early 21st century, can we, as Epicurus insisted we must, do more with less? Can we examine our set of desires in order to distinguish the natural and necessary (good work, aesthetic appreciation, leisure) from the non-natural and unnecessary (excessive wealth, high status, extreme vulgarity)? Can we surround ourselves with friends for whom food is not just energy but that which is mouthed and tongued, for whom books not just fetishes but textures and shadings, land not just resource but earth and soil, home more than refuge, hosting a venerable art of welcoming? And can we, for a time at least, turn down the volume on all the buzzing and all the hurrying, all the anger and the strife, and can we, in this stillness, relearn self-sufficiency and self-reflection as well as the social virtues of honesty and sincerity?

Getting rid of my mobile phone would be a start. I knew, however, that I couldn’t do this unless I had put my life in order. First I would have to say good-bye to the cancellers and re-schedulers, to the self-absorbed and the chronically late; these were not friends nor could they be. Then I would have to build a philosophical practice that was based on working with nourishing individuas, not exhausting and dispiriting them. Each day, I would need to transform the mundane objects of my existence—the trees I run past, the “after-you’s” I hear, the payments offered and received—into beautiful experiences worthy of adoration. Finally I would have to make room in my life for leisure, for Sabbath, for the achingly slow rhythms of the mind in solitude. To settle in, then, in my own skin.

I know that simplicity is not the final word on our strange time; it is not an ultimate solution to the problem of disquietude, not a good-enough recipe for living well. At certain moments, it feels quixotic and insignificant, cloying and bathetic. At others, though, it seems just about right: a time of stillness, a wistful, reflective mood that may reveal the way forward, the means by which we may struggle again, the manner in which we may commit ourselves once more, this time with more energy, greater hope, and more humility. A scene in the middle of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (1990) captures the softness of the mood:

Daisy quarreled much less than most people with time. The past did not occupy her thoughts unless it had to, nor did the future. At the present moment she was on a country walk, and she wanted to do things right.

Till now, we have had to quarrel with our time; this has been our burden. Now, we want to do things right. Our life-task, so large, so urgent, is to make up the how.

Andrew Taggart is a philosophical counselor living in New York. He is currently writing a book on philosophy as a way of life.

James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief

James Barsness I Am Discovered
James Barsness 'I Am Discovered' (detail), 1994, mixed media on paper; 46.4cm x 38.7cm; from the collection of Mickey Cartin, Florida

Drawing on comic strips to explore “crackpot ideas” about social interaction, the Barsness universe recalls the playful chaos of Bruegel. In this catalogue essay from 1997, Thyrza Nichols Goodeve considers drawing and doodling. Full thanks to the author and the gallery for permission to republish

“For all drawing depends, primarily, on your power of representing roundness. If you once do that, all the rest is easy and straight forward; if you cannot do that, nothing else that you may be able to do will be of any use.”

– John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing and the Elements of Perspective (1857)

Drawing for James Barsness is more than the power to represent. It is an activity and a subject, a tradition to mine and a medium of discovery. Approaching each canvas as a kind of two-dimensional laboratory for experimentation, he is a craftsman and a highly seasoned aesthetician. In a style that recalls the mastery of Bruegel laced with the whimsy of turn-of-the-century cartoons, Barsness’s canvases are thick with evocations of a sensorial universe.

As an activity, drawing in the universe of Barsness is ruled neither by the preciousness of the canvas (“I like working on a surface that’s already been screwed up” (1, see footnotes below) nor by false separations between fine art and populist traditions such as the comic strip or caricature. Drawing is as much an elegant, translucent rendering of St. Christopher against a backdrop of the Sunday comics (St. Christopher) as it is the crayon sketches made by his own children and collaged onto the canvas of Allegory of Good Government. With its double nature as both verb and noun, high art and popular form, drawing is his material and palette. (“Even when painting,” he says, “I’m mostly filling in drawings.”) It is for him an action and labor, a process of exertion as well as of discourse. (“I try to hold myself to certain big ideas, but if something wants to go in another direction, I tend to let it go that way.”)

Key to Barsness’s style is the sensation of roundness, what Ruskin noted in his mid-19th-century treatise on drawing as the skill most necessary for an artist to master. Harsh edges, crosshatching, or geometric angles do not characterize Barsness’s canvases so much as a general air of roundness: round shapes, bulbous figures, and, most importantly, the sheer feeling of circular motion. Ruskin privileged “roundness” because it endows a shape with a sense of dimension and weight, of being an object in the world. Barsness indicates an interest in achieving such an effect “in the tactile sensibility that arises from trying to make something look as though it once really existed in space”. But he takes the artistry of drawing into another realm, into fairy tale-infected caricature and cartoon. Wedding Bruegel with R.F. Outcault or Rudolph Dirks – originators of turn-of-the-century comic strips The Yellow Kid and The Katzenjammer Kids, respectively – in such works as L’Economie, Barsness seeks to create a relationship to the canvas that is as much about contact and sensation as it is about the autobiographical scenes, moments from everyday life, portraits, mythic and religious subjects drawn from art history, and tableaus of social commentary that pervade his canvases. In fact, the articulation of such themes may be of less importance than the arousal of a “tactile sensibility”. It is such an awakening of touch that he is really after and why the rounded, bulbous feel of early 20th-century cartoons often crops up in his work. “When you see those cartoons,” he says, “it is as though you can really feel them. The closer I can get to that tactile sensibility, the better.” In his large story-evoking, as opposed to storytelling canvases, The Monster’s Progress, Allegory of Good Government, and In The Neighborhood, the feel of the action of his drawing, the physical presence of scratching on a surface, is most pronounced; here the larger theme of social unrest and conflict is transferred from mere two-dimensional imagery into tactile meditation.

His most political work in the exhibition, Allegory of Good Government, is Barsness’s statement on the luckless structure of government. The canvas is saturated with a thick layering of paired oppositional creatures that dance upon the surface in a cacophony of elements at odds with one another. The paired images are borrowed from folk culture, e.g., salt and pepper shakers, cats and dogs, a lion and a mouse, and redesigned into nightmarish yet amusing symbols of paradox and aggression. Yet while the rendering of gnomelike comical oppositions is powerful and frenetic in and of itself, the effect of chaos issues as much from his “destructive method” as from his virtuoso odes to Bosch and Bruegel’s folk iconography.

Barsness The Allegory of Good Government
James Barsness 'The Allegory of Good Government' (detail), 1995, acrylic, ink, ballpoint pen, gold leaf, and newsprint on canvas; 214.0cm x 183.5cm

Barsness does not do preliminary drawings. What you see is both practice mat and finished form. In other words, he resolves the various permutations of his studies on the very canvas upon which he is working. When a stroke or form appears that he does not like, he erases or sands through it rather than beginning anew on a fresh piece of canvas: “The whole idea is to get through all these different permutations until you get to the most attractive”. As a result, his canvases resonate not just with the themes that interest him but with the very act of making the drawing itself. And here we come to a central attribute of Barsness’s aesthetic. His is a version of obsessive drawing developed from the most debased or at least most underregarded modality of drawing – the doodle. By definition, doodling is the process, not the completion of a work. In this sense, it is the perennial abandoned stepchild of all modes of drawing, whether one is doodling in preparation for a comic strip, a portrait, or a Renaissance study. In itself it is not considered a focused or serious activity, for one doodles while in a state of preparation or absent-minded inattention. One does not spend the day working on one’s “doodling”, for instance.

Doodling, then, is best understood as the art of distraction or of the distracted, a mode that might trouble some but which Barsness puts to work as the very basis on his technique. “I’m too distractible for the kind of complete narrative storytelling of, say, a novelist,” he explains of his tendency to build fragments into thematic structures but never completed stories. For instance, three works in this exhibition belong to his “Little Monarch” series: I Am Discovered, The Good Citizen, and The Boy King. The whole series, of which there are only seven finished pieces, is based on the idea of a boy monarch “involved in all these fragments of stories”. I Am Discovered celebrates the moment of his birth, The Boy King shows him wrestling, and The Good Citizen depicts him “rather like George Washington”, confessing to having burned his house down. Nothing in these images suggests or necessitates that they be linked to one another; their derivation from the “Little Monarch” series is utterly beside the point for Barsness. They evolve from the fragment of an idea, filled out via a process of distraction, doodling taken into the realm of the finished work of art.

Familiarity with Bruegel’s method is helpful in uncovering the symbology of Barsness’s work, for he, like Bruegel, constructs a cartoonish lexicon out of the visualization of proverbs. For example, Bruegel’s painting The Blue Cloak (1559) is made up of scenes true to the tenor of 16th-century Flemish everyday life while simultaneously illustrating a variety of Netherlandish proverbs. Similarly, Barsness explains the image of the burning boot in The Good Citizen: “In Mother Goose, the boot is the symbol of home. So, I use that symbol every once in a while. You see the boy monarch is burning his house (boot) down in this scene”. Such symbolization makes a kind of language out of the culturally encoded doodles both artists draw upon from fairy tales, proverbs and nursery rhymes.

The art of refined doodling is also central to a founding moment in Barsness’s development as an artist – when, in the sixth grade, he entered a “Draw Winkey” contest. Sponsored by the Famous Artists Institute in Minneapolis, advertised on matchbook covers or in comic books, the contest invited children to “Draw Winkey” (a lumberjack or baby deer). Barsness’s rendition of Winkey won him a $300 scholarship toward the $600 tuition for the Famous Artists Institute correspondence school. But after a representative of the school appeared at the Barsness family home drunk (“I’d never smelled anyone like that before”), his parents decided against investing the $300 balance. Nonetheless, the experience was pivotal for Barsness who recounts it tongue-in-cheek as signifying something notable about his relationship to art.

Barsness’s affection for “Draw Winkey” and its role in the formation of his artistic identity, is representative of his attachment to popular tradition where doodling invades the world of fine art. From the monumental The Monster’s Progress, St. Christopher, or the more colloquial Boy On Horse or L’Economie, a pop-culture “Draw Winkie” glee suffuses and mixes with the studied artistry of his conceptions. The Monster’s Progress, made after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, privileges giant Bruegelesque figures amid a rolling landscape of cartoon antics. As in many of his pieces, comic strips provide a background on which his impish, in-motion characters scoot about. Figures in duress beat one another with spoons; or an oversized diaper pin. Others race at one another, one with a shopping cart, while another disappears over the edge of a hill, clutching the prize of a gift-wrapped package in hand. It is a study of social chaos where looting and urban riot are drawn into a scene part fairy tale, part nightmare, laced with the rectitude and whimsy of doodling.

A quite literal act of doodling served as the genesis of The Little Bible. Barsness had given himself the assignment to draw on the pages of various books he was either reading at the time, Lucy Lippard’s collected essays on Minimalism, for instance, or discovered by accident in the trash, such as the portable Little Bible, until their original texts were layered with his own images. Commuting via subway to a job in Greenwich Village from his home in Brooklyn, Barsness spent the time sketching and drawing people he saw until all of the pages of the Bible were covered. He then placed these pages, produced in the interstices of everyday life, into a grid, framed with gold leaf. The impromptu act of sketching, in transit, from everyday faces around him became a kind of monumental elegy on the human face, gold and all. Exaltation meets the common and the base. In many ways, this could be the best way to summarize Barsness’s work, which is always about mussing up the sacred truths of society and art history as, for instance, the legendary nude Lady Godiva (Godiva) gallops heroically out against a sea of cartoons?!?

The humor and tension produced by pairing the colloquial – doodling, comic strips, children’s drawings, and scenes of everyday life – and the monumental – references to art history, lives of saints, and exalted themes and materials – are a characteristic of Barsness’s aesthetic that Bill Berkson calls to our attention in reference to the artist’s signature use of ball-point pen: “[B]allpoint ink oxidizes,” Berkson notes, “leaving an iridescence like that of a grease puddle on a dirt road, a deep dazzle. If the blue ink slides up to gold leaf in a sweet reprise of 14th-century spiritual glamour, it’s no accident. Barsness is after exactly that passage from one human affirmation to the next.” (2) At once playful and earnest, informal and polished, the pieces on view in Icons of Comic Relief demonstrate just such a “passage from one human affirmation to the next”. Utterly without pretension and with a skill as refined as the 14th-century “spiritual glamour” his work can sometimes reflect, Barsness is both trickster and master of the art of drawing. As much the courtly cartoon jester of his canvases as the boy monarch, he is not “hick” (3) but the arbiter of a contemporary version of disegno, Leonardo da Vinci’s notion of drawing as both deity and science, where the scratch of a pen materializes at once into spirit and sensation to create icons of culture and agents of comic relief.


  1. James Barsness in a telephone interview with the author, January 1997. Subsequent quotations from the artist are also from this conversation.
  2. Bill Berkson, “Jim Barsness [at] Susan Cummings Gallery”, Artforum 19:2 (October 1990), 176.
  3. Asked what tradition he placed himself in, Barsness said, “My wife says I’m a humanist which is kind of nice but is also an insult. I like to think of myself as a populist”. He pauses and laughs, “Even if that does make me a hick”.

James Barsness: Icons of Comic Relief (February 9-April 27, 1997) was curated by John Michael Kohler Arts Center curator Andrea Inselmann. JMKAC acknowledges with gratitude The George Adams Gallery and James Barsness for making this exhibition possible. JMKAC also expresses its deep appreciation to the 175 corporations and foundations and over 1,350 families providing the ongoing support of the program and operations. Our profound thanks go to the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board for their vital funding for this project.

John Michael Kohler Arts Center, 608 New York Avenue, PO Box 480, Sheboygan, Wisconsin 53082-0489

The Design of Jonathan Walker’s Five Wounds

Five Wounds is something of a contemporary classic: a manuscript crossed with Kit Williams’ playful imagination, informed by the language of graphic novels. Although very much a book, in the tactile sense, it has half an eye on what a book might be in a digital era. Jonathan Walker, the author of Five Wounds shares the secrets of the design process and how his text weaves around Dan Hallett’s illustrations

Imagine that the appearance of a book is part of the story it tells, as if it was an artefact created by the imaginary civilisation it describes. Book design becomes an aspect of what the science-fiction community calls ‘world-building’, and as such it applies the principle of ‘Show, don’t tell’ to the surface of the page itself. My fantasy novel Five Wounds uses design in exactly this way. What, then, does the page design in Five Wounds show us?

The first thing you might notice is that the text is divided internally into books, chapter and verses, as if it reaches us only via the hands of priestly interpreters. It is also surrounded by several different kinds of image, in several different visual idioms: miniature heraldic coats-of-arms, woodcut- and etching-style illustrations, and, more disturbingly, neurotic doodles, including handwritten scribbles and corrections added on top of the typeset text, as if it has been defaced by an editor who is not no longer certain of its canonical status. Perhaps this is the same reader who has coloured all the coats-of-arms in an enthusiastic but incompetent manner. Below is a sample page from Five Wounds, which shows some of these features.

Five Wounds Sample Layout (right)

Five Wounds describes the intertwined fates of five freakish protagonists: Gabriella is a crippled angel; Cur is the rabid leader of a sect of dogs; Cuckoo is a gambler with a wax face; Magpie is a myopic thief in search of the perfect photographic subject; Crow is a leper trying to distil the essence of death as an antidote against dying. Their stories constitute a kind of alternate history of Venice, although we don’t know where we are in time; or rather, we seem to be in several different historical periods simultaneously.

Wherever we are, the Bible is still the exemplary book, but the boundary between sacred text and perverse marginalia has become unclear. Five Wounds looks like Holy Scripture, but the events it describes are more like those of a fairy tale. Indeed, ‘world-building’ is perhaps a misleading term in this context, since the novel’s setting, like that of a fairy tale, seems both distorted and imprecise: more like an image in a fairground mirror than a realistic portrait. In any case, the book’s design helps to describes this grotesque imaginary landscape.

Plate 6: Cuckoo's reflection
Cuckoo’s Reflection

Following a single motif through its various manifestations in the text, the illustrations and the design may help to explain how this works. One of my five protagonists is Cuckoo: a gambler whose wax face can be reshaped at will. Cuckoo’s dilemma – Who am I if I have no face of my own? – drives several incidents in the plot, but it is also dramatised in the illustrations, in which Cuckoo’s face is always scratched out. He is literally defaced, as in the illustration above. His scratched-out face also links Cuckoo by analogy to the scribbled corrections on the typeset text. Like the blacked-out text, his face is ‘under erasure’, and the revelation of his true self is continually deferred.

Cuckoo is obsessed with his reflection, precisely because he cannot identify with this unrecognisable double of himself. The text that accompanies the portrait above comments on this motif:

  1. AS Cuckoo angled his mirror, the candle flame flared off the blade, obliterating his reflection.
  2. He imagined the glass as a recording device, which would retain only the movements of the knife’s point and edge across his face, reducing his efforts to a simple pattern of lines.
  3. What was his face now but the summation of these tiny, accumulated motions?

In fact, I added this passage only after seeing Dan’s image. Thus the interaction between the various elements works both ways in Five Wounds. The images are a commentary on the text; but the text is also a commentary on the images. As the artist R.B. Kitaj put it, ‘Some books have pictures and some pictures have books.’

The broader point here is that key ideas should be present throughout the DNA of Five Wounds, and as such, they should be manifest in every aspect of its production. My job as art director was to ensure that these ideas circulated freely between the text, the illustrations and the design.

Perhaps this all sounds rather abstract, but in every case an emotional question precedes and generates the formal questions. In the case of Cuckoo, the original question was, ‘What does it feel like to have no face of your own: to be alienated irrevocably from your own body and your own emotions?’ The design of Five Wounds doesn’t just help to describe the world in which the story takes place. It also shows what it feels like to be Cuckoo.



Further Resources:

  • Jonathan Walker’s incredible Five Wounds website
  • Jonathan Walker’s blog (including a free sample chapter of the book) and further fascinating insights

Positivism and its Discontents: A Sidebar to The Sokal Hoax

An appendix by Jonathan Reynolds, offering some background to the debates that gave rise to The Sokal Hoax

For Spike readers who wish to grasp the basics of the modern argument which culminated in the controversy (full article here), a key term and concept to understand is positivism. A positivist stance encapsulates the furthest reach, paradigmatically in the 19th century, of confidence that human beings can completely and transparently understand the world around them. Inspired by Husserl’s insistence in his phenomenology on “bracketing” the “natural world” in order to study phenomena as such – all that we can know – in the 20th century to harbor “positivist” views and assumptions has warranted instant condemnation and dismissal by postmodernists.

Why is understanding positivism key? Does the charge by politically left-wing postmodernists – with frequently a political agenda (1, see footnotes below) – of positivism have any weight when directed against physics and physicists? Ignoring the excessive charge that physics and other hard sciences are part of some kind of reactionary political, economic and cultural domination, we must keep in mind that a charge of positivism remains tractable in other knowledge enterprises, for example history and the social sciences, or any intellectual discipline that studies the human universe as opposed to the universe; “scientism” is a pejorative attached to social scientists who assert that “only scientific claims are meaningful” even in studies that rely on subjective data or data about meaning to individuals or groups. Even if the PM/lit crit folks only aimed a charge of sociopolitical or classist domination against modern physics in a deniable way, Alan Sokal evidently thought a dangerous assault was being made on the high, indeed, the highest, edifices of human intellectual achievement, scientific truth discovering a single objective reality.

With a clear historical lineage beginning with the Enlightenment and reason and continuing through the British empirical “sense-data” philosophers, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, positivism bloomed in the 19th century at the apex of the industrial revolution with two French thinkers, Henri de Saint Simon and Auguste Comte, who explicitly articulated its sunniest assumptions. It was also the time when, offensive to most of us, nowadays, most political and cultural leaders of the West considered peoples from Africa as racial inferiors and that colonialism was not oppression but the bringing of civilization to the benighted. In what became social science, including anthropology, Herbert Spencer in England and Lewis Henry Morgan in America – someone Marx admired – represented the same positivist claims and assumptions, for example, the idea of cultural evolution of humans toward ever higher and more complex social organization; we can place the latter two firmly with Darwin’s totalistic explanation for the variety and process of variation of all life. (2) These much dated and erroneous thinkers, one can say, partially in agreement with the postmodernists, clearly were products of their time, the apex of the industrial revolution and what was postdicted as “modernism”; beginning with the Enlightenment modernism is a curious term for a historically real intellectual and aesthetic phenomenon through time and space. Judging from a scan of social scientific literature, paradigmatic modernist perspectives were completely eclipsed by the epistemic ideation or sensation roughly no later than the 1950s-1960s in the United States. This crisis occurred when every idea, word, phrase, image and symbol had become or was felt to be secondhand and empty of content; literary artists, philosophers, and intellectuals in other disciplines tangibly felt that everything has been said that could be said. We now suppose that modernism collapsed more or less as the social consequences of the industrial revolution were being felt, that is, when we became aware of the negative impact by humans on the planet. In literature, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake is seen as the very last modernist novel, beyond which nothing new could be written (my own estimation is that Malcolm Lowry’s, Under the Volcano, published in 1947, might represent the last modernist novel, but, to me, this wonderful novel also seems to be a throwback, in many ways – a conscious effort to mimic the great modernist novels). Philosophers in the 19th century on the continent – Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Schopenhauer – had contributed to the collapse of modernism, their work followed up in the 20th century by existentialism and its offshoots. The “death of God” remains an iconic characterization from Nietzsche through the existentialists of the emptiness of a formerly automatic assumption, the existence of God as the Absolute.

Understanding anti- or post-positivism – postmodernism – one has also to understand, principally, for all its hoopla, that it can be traced to one insight only. This was Descartes’ cogito, ergo sum. Springing from the cogito was Kant’s reflexive or critical observation that the subject or observer affects or is part of the observation and at least and to an unknowable degree determines the observed thing. The epistemological validity of this assertion is undeniable. But epistemology, by an inexorable and logical turn of thinking, moved to the ontological – how we know things became how we are as human beings. I believe that, in general, postmodernists did not understand that this turn did not mean there was not one knowable reality. I touched on this earlier, but let me explain it in more detail.

For some reason – probably an excess of excitement accompanying realization of the ramifications of Descartes’ equation of the cogito, an intoxicating, purely intuitive insight for many American and European social thinkers and literary theorists in the mid-20th century, but a one-trick pony in the doing of (social) science and critical thought – some thinkers and academics (still quietly occupying professorships in university departments of literature, anthropology, and social theory) took it too far and took it wrong. As I have mentioned, what the relativist, deconstructionist believers in the text got wrong was that the main currents of continental philosophy never said that there was no single reality. Husserl’s “radical empiricism” underscored this. Sartre’s casual assertion early in Being and Nothingness that the subjective-objective dichotomy had been resolved did not mean that he was a relativist. Heidegger’s “being-there” did not mean that there was no “there.” (I hope readers versed in the works perhaps unfairly lumped together as “relativist” write in to Spike with details about how Derrida and Foucault and others cited by Sokal and by me, here, summarize the arguments that would refute this.) For all of these omissions and missteps by postmodernism I laughed and applauded Sokal’s coup de main.

Positivist perspectives and claims, hence, collide with the sociology of knowledge or (somewhat differently and more specifically) the social construction of knowledge. This is the idea contra positivism that human knowledge is necessarily and to whatever degree affected by history and social circumstances and developments such as politics, power and economics.

Pertinent to this is that opposition to positivism has many fathers, including Marx. Marx said that economics – materialism, matter – and class warfare underlay or determined human history. Because the prime mover, after all, to Marx was a materialist and dialectical history, it did not take the PM contemporaries of Sokal much to adopt a general attitude that a particular social context ultimately determines even the propositions and conclusions of the hard sciences. This extreme view is what prompted Sokal to perpetrate the hoax. Even though Marx said he based all of his philosophy on matter – famously “turning Hegel on his head,” controverting German idealist thought with a pure materialism – we don’t call him a physicist. Marx was talking only about the human universe, e.g., history and how history, in a real and concrete sense, is made.

Taking a long leap from Marx and the 19th century forebears of the issues, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, was a touchstone for the postmodernists who interpreted Kuhn as supporting their views. Kuhn was quickly cited by postmodernists of every stripe; here was a respected historian of science declaring that scientific knowledge was not accumulative or continuing – gradually adding to the sum of human knowledge. Rather, it was subject to paradigms that began and ended. Interestingly, in evolutionary biology the analogical term is “punctuated equilibrium”: microevolutionary change, now accepted by evolutionary biologists as fundamental to biological evolution, is punctuated, or stopped, by macroevolutionary events; an example is the crash into the earth of a giant asteroid sixty million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs, and mammals took the opportunity to develop. (3)

A relevant question here is whether physics and the other hard sciences are, as Kuhn asserted, also subject to paradigmatic shift or operate in a continuing accumulation of knowledge. We might ask, for example, could Einstein have made his discoveries if Newton had not existed? I suspect physicists such as Sokal would reply, energetically and emphatically, no. But did Einstein’s general theory of relativity4 imply such a different universe than Newton’s that it represented a complete change in how we view reality and the universe? In later interviews and in his 2008 book, in a little nod to the other side, Sokal refers to the Zeitgeist (“spirit of the times”), a distinct epochal social and intellectual context, as in the Weltenschaung or “world view,” which is historically grounded and either strongly or completely is suggested to determines theory and proposed facts. To some PM thinkers, Sokal may be understood to charge, the epochal context can or does determine to whatever degree all claims and assertions, even those of hard science.

The emphasis is on the importance of context for both the generation of insight and the understanding of that insight. But at the same time, emergences from a particular social and historical context can count as ever closer and more accurate descriptions of reality. However, if axioms perfectly describing a single reality are the holy grail for science and human knowledge, one might assert that any major correction to the prevailing wisdom completely changes our perspective on the matter, that is, constitutes a paradigm shift.

I do want to stress that just as I am a self-taught critical philosopher as well as a professional anthropologist and, therefore, am sensitive to and even completely responsive to the different “realities” one may discover in field work or study of what anthropology traditionally refers to as different cultures, I not only acknowledge but applaud the work of physicists and look forward to their incredibly exciting discoveries. Am I a relativist? No. Is it absolutely necessary for my own self- satisfaction as a professional scholar to try to keep an open mind to just about any conjecture, I would answer, yes. I do understand, completely, the positivist attitude of physicists such as Sokal and Weinberg – and I hope they can forgive me for putting words in their mouths, or attributing opinions and stances they might not acknowledge themselves – which patently seem to derive not merely from empiricism but automatic belief in and reliance on sense-data (from the five senses) as the fundamental beginning basis for the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Now, this is not to say that charges of and instant dismissal of “scientism” and purported hard scientific conclusions about, for example, race and intelligence, are not without complete justification. With regard to charges of political, social, and cultural “domination” in modern society by physics and physicists, for example, these are much more difficult for me to consider supportable or even relevant for study. It is unquestionably the case that the hard sciences historically derived from, belonged to, and were controlled by, mostly members of the elite and privileged around the world, who mostly if not entirely drew from the upper and middle classes of the West. But does this mean conclusions by physicists are biased socially and, therefore, wrong factually as well as destructive socially? Physics remains largely an enterprise based on mathematics; is mathematics susceptible to racist, classist, and sexist prejudices? I cannot see how this could be the case. Access to the education necessary to become a mathematician, or physicist – and make a living at it – is undoubtedly still significantly if not greatly limited to aspirants from the West and not from, for example, Africa. Sokal considers himself an “old-fashioned leftist” in many of his publications about his hoax as well as interviews with him. I’m with him, there. He and I may not agree about the radical critique of the Enlightenment, itself, that Neo-Marxists Horkheimer and Adorno, prominent members of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology, provided us in 1944.


  1. Sokal declared that one of his motivations behind the hoax was to protect left-wing or progressive stances from self- acknowledged leftist PM writers or thinkers whose writing, to him, was vulnerable to attack because it was gibberish.
  2. Even as evolutionary biology distinctly denies the notion of “progress” in adaptation and natural selection, 19th century proponents of cultural evolution such as Spencer and Morgan assumed movement through time of lower or less complex or civilized societies toward high civilization, the model or ideal for which patently was derived from Europe and the Old World. In Morgan’s cultural evolutionary scheme, the “Aryan” and “Semitic” societies were the most developed, toward which all other societies inexorably would move, if not from their own internal dynamics, through diffusion; A notorious paper by Morgan on Aztec society absurdly characterized the Mexica tlatoani as a “chief,” not a “king,” and only first among equals in an otherwise egalitarian social structure.
  3. The next great punctuation in evolution may be an enormous catastrophe that kills off many humans because of climate change or, or together with, Ray Kurzweil’s fabulously optimistic vision of a “singularity” in human development achieved by technology and by which we become immortal.
  4. As many physicists and philosophers of science have observed, Einstein’s use of the word “relativity” in no way meant truth was relative or there was no single objective reality.

The Sokal Hoax Fifteen Years Later: A Philosophical Reading of the Controversy

In 1996, the physicist Alan Sokal perpetrated a hoax on the academic journal Social Text intended to text the intellectual rigor of postmodernist thinking. Jonathan Reynolds reassesses the affair

Mixing metaphors, celebrating the 15-year anniversary of what still must be considered a total slam dunk in what was called the “science wars” or the “culture wars” – framed as for or against Truth and Objective Reality – it is worth remembering the publication in 1996 in the spring/summer issue of Social Text, a leading scholarly review of postmodern thought, of a completely over-the-top parodic article called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. The article, a savage satire concocted by Alan Sokal, a physicist, and planted like a Trojan Horse in the camp of the enemy, brought to a head a couple of decades of a simmering dispute between presumably some of our best thinkers – certainly those, at the time, with the greatest professional repute and renown on both sides of the Atlantic.

Sokal’s scathing parody paid no attention to the rules of discourse in the academic world. The larger purpose – as he put it, to “counter epistemic relativism” – to him, warranted breaking the rules. Relativism is a a simple and basic issue in epistemology, which asks, how do we know we know the universe or objective reality? What pricked the tender skins of the postmodernists Sokal was attacking was the unbridled vehemence of his outrage – so, defensively, they were outraged, in turn. But to Sokal, the stakes were the highest. To him, PM was threatening not only the standards of determining objective knowledge but the scientific enterprise, itself – the triumph of Western Man since the Enlightenment of reason and what became the scientific method.

Because epistemological uncertainty vs epistemological certitude is central to the underlying questions in the dispute, in this article I want to correct misconceptions about this long-standing conundrum. As Sartre wrote early in Being and Nothingness, and as Nietzsche and other 19th-century European philosophers demonstrated some hundred years earlier – contrary to much postmodern thinking and propositions, and still unreferenced or acknowledged by many professional intellectuals in America – continental philosophy (1, see footnotes below) solved the division between subject and object. This development did not imply a relativist conclusion that we cannot know reality or even that no single external reality exists. What one must understand is that mainstream continental philosophy – as opposed to its derivatives in postmodernism – emphasized epistemological certitude as opposed to what hard science, as a matter of faith, posits as a, or the, single reality heuristically in order to conduct its researches. To give readers a clue as to how this has been accomplished, the term continental philosophers have used for the totality of reality, being, contrasts with the language of hard science of an “external reality independent of the observer”, in other words, a total reality – the single reality. That Sokal and other physicists employ the term, “external reality”, the adjective “external” gives away the assumption by the hard sciences that the “subject” and “subjective” phenomena, or impressions or beliefs, as contaminants need to be removed from the process of knowing and revealing reality. It’s important to grasp that just as there is no evidence God exists, there is no final evidence or proof a single reality exists. The essential thing to grasp is that for mainstream continental philosophy reality is particular. That it is particular means that it is accessed “by degree” and ultimate or complete revelation of total reality can never be gained, even though for temporal epochs a revelation or group of revelations overcomes most doubt or uncertainty. With consideration of particularity we enter the existential realm, because the particular is an infinite, just as, as Sartre says, consciousness is “infinite interiority”.

The Bones of the Affair

By the 1990s PM critical theory had reached full bloom before being clipped back neatly by the spoof article. Implicitly or explicitly denying the existence of a single knowable reality, whether the postmodernists Sokal attacked truly were the relativists he and other physicists charged or were not, the implication was that greatly in-fashion, indeed, almost deified, PM thinkers were bloviators of nonsense, masquerading as legitimate critics of hard science. Turning PM jargon against itself, the parody – knee-slappingly, breathlessly funny to many academics at the time – displayed a close study of its writing and writers.

“It has… become increasingly apparent that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific ‘knowledge,’ far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities. These themes can be traced, despite some differences of emphasis, in Aronowitz’s analysis of the cultural fabric that produced quantum mechanics in Ross’ discussion of oppositional discourses in post-quantum science; in Irigaray’s and Hayles’ exegeses of gender encoding in fluid mechanics; and in Harding’s comprehensive critique of the gender ideology underlying the natural sciences in general and physics in particular”.

Say what?

A few weeks later Sokal published in the journal Lingua Franca the revelation that the paper in Social Text was an intentional spoof. His twofold goals, he claimed, were not grandiose but, instead, quite simple: ridiculing would-be science writing and “gross abuses of scientific concepts by certain French [and British and American] philosophical literary intellectuals”. But his charge of “epistemic relativism” against postmodernists, characterizing them as asserting there is no objective, external reality, was big-time and drew much blood.

Defensive reaction was harsh and immediate. A front page article in The New York Times quoted some of Sokal’s outraged targets: “‘He says we’re epistemic relativists,’ complained Stanley Aronowitz, the co-founder and a professor at CUNY. ‘We’re not. He got it wrong. One of the reasons he got it wrong is he’s ill-read and half- educated’”.

One is tempted to compare Sokal’s spoof to the culmination of Sherman’s March, the burning of Atlanta. Contrary to Aronowitz’s charge of being poorly educated, Sokal has degrees from Princeton (B.A. summa cum laude, M.A.) and Harvard (Ph.D.). Sokal now holds joint appointments as a professor of physics at New York University and University College London; his info web page lists his expertise or physics specialist foci as “statistical mechanics; quantum field theory; mathematical physics; and computational physics”.

Postmodernism, critical theory, and relativism from “deconstruction” had led to the “unpacking” of every manifestation or claim, via “hermeneutics”, in order to strip away all hidden presuppositions to reach a pure core of meaning. Michel Foucault referred to an “archaeology” of knowledge. Ultimately, this led to all statements as “texts” whose meaning could vary or be read differently depending on the reader. Relativism was promoted via the postmodernists and their assertions and conclusions about the ability of human knowledge, even formal hard scientific inquiry, to describe and know the universe and reality and objective truth. Generals of the army of the opposition included Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Luce Irigaray, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Deleuze, Richard Rorty, and Stanley Aronowitz, among others. (2)

The American Civil War presents a tempting analogy (Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, used it, too in a commentary), albeit completely unfair in its implications about these folks just listed and sure to produce angry objections. The conflict was bloody between the “Union”, in this case, mainly hard scientific proponents of a full or complete understanding of the universe and reality, and a “Confederacy”of dissenters, the relativists – those who emphasized the social construction of all knowledge. Specifically, Sokal aimed his guns, first, at the editors of Social Text, and mentioning as some of the principal offenders Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Baudrillard, and Aronowitz.

As a social scientist and self-taught reflexive or critical philosopher, but also as an anthropologist who feels his feet are planted firmly in the real world, my own reaction was to laugh out loud and to yell, “Right on!” to Sokal for a great accomplishment in the science wars – science vs “cultural studies”. Nevertheless, I felt some uneasiness that Sokal oversimplified the issues and omitted essential relevant considerations from long-standing discourses in pure philosophy.

The present essay dives into the implied philosophical thinking underlying the controversy. It presumes the reader is at least somewhat familiar with continental philosophy – the principal foundation claimed by PM thinkers for their assertions, even as the derivatives to it in postmodernism may have gone awry from its mainstream currents.

With this in mind, a reexamination of the controversy Sokal’s spoof generated 15 years later is worthwhile because it opened up rich and valid areas for thought, with still debated conundra that go back to Descartes and Kant. As the shouting has died down to murmurs or silence (one can now assert that throughout much of academia postmodernism has been abandoned (3)), the antagonists presumably still hold largely to their views, leaving important issues floating aimlessly at sea.

For those who knew little or nothing about the controversy, I suggest here some purely philosophical thoughts to help close out an angry truce-by-frustration that has existed since the arguments exploded into the intellectual stratosphere 15 years ago. (4) Hopefully the present effort will be a real addition to the important issues raised by Sokal and his antagonists. It is worth pointing out that, despite declaring more than ten years later a regret that the controversy consumed three years of his life, Sokal has continued to follow up with the affair, publishing in 2008, for example, an entire book recapping the arguments. What has, as I say, entirely been omitted from the argument are the insights of continental philosophy – the tradition beginning with Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, and continuing through Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, and, in the last century, Husserl, Sartre, and Heidegger. The intended coda by Sokal in 2008 still does not take into consideration the continental philosophical underpinnings of what became postmodernism and which continue to have relevance to the issues raised, whether you or I define those issues as a sharp and necessary reaction to “an assault on reason and science” (ibid.) or as a simplification, and misunderstanding, of the still undetermined and ultimately undeterminable degree that data are constructed by us, and of what is meant, in a pure epistemological sense, roughly by the “social construction of knowledge”.

Extrapolating from the ruckus, though not articulated as such, I will assert that the battle had legitimate motivations as it was fought over dichotomies between two universes, the universe and the human universe – between two ways of approaching or accessing reality and objective truth, each of which, in its best form, are necessary parts of science and human understanding of reality and the universe, and necessarily, from the dialectic in the knowledge enterprise between observer and observed, or, theory and data. The fundamental difference between the two approaches is that science seeks continually to remove “observer bias” from its calculations, while philosophy, specifically continental philosophy, not only accepts the observer but requires as necessary and fundamental in the knowledge enterprise study of human consciousness, the medium and constructor to whatever degree of both what is observed and of “what is”, or being.

In addition to an “external world” vs being, and exclusion vs inclusion of the observer in constructions of reality, other dichotomies – actually polar or requiring each other in a dialectic – are key to proper explication: “partial” reality as opposed to absolute reality, specific or particular vs abstract, empirical vs “lived experience”, “fact” and “meaning”, and “how” – asked by science – or “why” – asked by philosophy. “History” and “process”, and “material” and “ideal”, are other, more general dichotomies in the social sciences. A tip here: we enter the existential realm of thinking when we speak of these dichotomies; specific or particular vs abstract, for example, because it is only because of the one-way arrow of time (5) and therefore (our) finitude that, each of us representing an individual organism, we are mortal and die.

The Reaction

Immediately after Sokal’s paper in Social Text and his simultaneous revelations in Lingua Franca that the paper was a parody meant to discredit PM thinkers, on its front page The New York Times characterized the hoax as “one more skirmish in the culture wars, the battles over multiculturalism and college curriculums and whether there is a single objective truth or just many differing points of view” (May 18). Along with the weighty Times acknowledgment, Sokal’s spoof was heatedly discussed in a bevy of academic journals that entertained postmodern views.

For some days and weeks thereafter, a flurry of letters appeared in The Times, praising the hoax and denouncing it. Without elaboration, on May 23, Bruce Robins and Andrew Ross, editors of Social Text, published a brief letter in The Times, denying that they “were championing a disbelief in the existence of the physical universe”. (6)

More reasoned but no less outraged on May 21, 1996, in a guest column in The Times entitled ‘Professor Sokal’s Bad Joke’, Stanley Fish, the prominent “literary theorist and legal scholar”, (7) pointed out an obvious nuance – one that Sokal may well have been aware of – but was harsh on Sokal.

“What sociologists of science say is that of course the world is real and independent of our observations but that accounts of the world are produced by observers and are therefore relative to their capacities, education, training, etc. It is not the world or its properties but the vocabularies in whose terms we know them that are socially constructed – fashioned by human beings – which is why our understanding of those properties is continually changing… [F]raud is said to go ‘beyond error to erode the foundation of trust on which science is built.’ That is Professor Sokal’s legacy, one likely to be longer lasting than the brief fame he now enjoys for having successfully pretended to be himself”.

Then, in a piece published in The New York Review of Books a few days later, Nobel Prize-winner Steven Weinberg weighed in with a fellow physicist’s eminently reasonably toned characterization of the affair and in some detail critiqued Sokal’s article and responded to the other side’s outraged objections and complaints. Weinberg is worth quoting at length.

Categorizing “Sokal’s hoax [as joining] the small company of legendary academic hoaxes, along with the pseudo-fossils of Piltdown man planted by Charles Dawson and the pseudo-Celtic epic Ossian written by James Macpherson…” However, he added: “[t]he difference is that Sokal’s hoax served a public purpose, to attract attention to what Sokal saw as a decline of standards of rigor in the academic community, and for that reason it was unmasked immediately by the author himself”. He commented further that: “[w]here the article does degenerate into babble, it is not in what Sokal himself has written, but in the writings of the genuine postmodern cultural critics quoted by Sokal. Here, for instance, is a quote that Sokal takes from the oracle of deconstructionism, Jacques Derrida: ‘The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability – it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something – of a center starting from which an observer could master the field – but the very concept of the game.’ I have no idea what this is intended to mean”.

Taking into consideration a bit more kindly than Sokal the other side’s arguments, he added:

“[S]cientists like Sokal find themselves in opposition to many sociologists, historians, and philosophers as well as postmodern literati. In this debate, the two sides often seem to be talking past each other. For instance, the sociologists and historians sometimes write as if scientists had not learned anything about the scientific method since the days of Francis Bacon, while of course we know very well how complicated the relation is between theory and experiment, and how much the enterprise of science depends on an appropriate social and economic setting. On the other hand, scientists sometimes accuse others of taking a completely relativist view, of not believing in objective reality. With dead seriousness, Sokal’s hoax cites ‘revisionist studies in the history and philosophy of science’ as casting doubt on the post-Enlightenment dogma that ‘there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole.’”

While he found fault with Sokal – “[t]he trouble with this satire is that most of Sokal’s targets deny that they have any doubt about the existence of an external world” – elsewhere Weinberg took note of some big names on the relativist side: “[t]he objective nature of scientific knowledge has been denied by Andrew Ross and Bruno Latour and (as I understand them) by the influential philosophers Richard Rorty and the late Thomas Kuhn, but it is taken for granted by most natural scientists” (my emphasis).

Naming more names, he further added:

“I criticized the feminist philosopher of science, Sandra Harding (one of the contributors to Social Text), for taking a relativist position that denied the objective character of physical law. In evidence I quoted her as calling modern science (and especially physics) ‘not only sexist but also racist, classist, and culturally coercive,’ and arguing that ‘physics and chemistry, mathematics and logic, bear the fingerprints of their distinctive cultural creators no less than do anthropology and history.’ It seemed to me that this statement could make sense only to a relativist; what is the good of wishing that the conclusions of scientific work were friendlier to multicultural or feminist concerns if these conclusions are to be an accurate account of objective reality? I sent a copy of this part of my draft to Harding, who pointed out to me various places in her writing where she had explicitly denied taking a relativist position. I took the easy way out; I dropped the accusation of relativism, and left it to the reader to judge the implications of her remarks”.

Like Fish, relying on negative evidence, that is, what Sokal had not said but could have or would have or might have said, but very much to the point of what I will discuss here, Weinberg commented about the limits of scientific theory:

“There is another complication here, that none of the laws of physics known today (with the possible exception of the general principles of quantum mechanics) are exactly and universally valid. Nevertheless, many of them have settled down to a final form, valid in certain known circumstances. The equations of electricity and magnetism that are today known as Maxwell’s equations are not the equations originally written down by Maxwell; they are equations that physicists settled on after decades of subsequent work by other physicists… They are understood today to be an approximation that is valid in a limited context (that of weak slowly-varying electric and magnetic fields), but in this form and in this limited context they have survived for a century and may be expected to survive indefinitely. This is the sort of law of physics that I think corresponds to something as real as anything else we know. This appears to be a point where scientists like Sokal and myself are in clear disagreement with some of those that Sokal satirizes”.

Sokal continued the argument with mathematician Gabriel Stolzenberg, who reacted to Weinberg’s article in an online piece (last updated 2004), claiming to refute many of Sokal’s and Weinberg’s assertions. I am in agreement with Stoltzenberg on one issue, “positivist” physicists, in general, may not fully understand some fundamental insights of modern continental philosophy – for example, as I discuss below, the concept and ramifications of the “hermeneutic”. However, in a direct exchange in 2003 between, on the one hand, Sokal and his colleague and coauthor for a volume published after the hoax article, Jean Bricmont, and Stolzenberg, on the other, in the journal Social Studies of Science, the issue for the latter boiled down to a “strong program” of deconstructionist validation of scientific theory that included consideration of social and historical context. Sokal and Bricmont dismissed this as “tendentious” and misleading and, ultimately, no different in substance from the counter-criticisms of Sokal.

Error by Omission: Continental Philosophy

The purpose of this article is not painstakingly to review the history of the hoax-by-parody and its aftermath, nor is it necessarily to revisit the personalities and particular motivations behind the claims and counter-claims. It is, again, simply to suggest what I believe most importantly has been missing from the debate. We get a clue to this from Weinberg. In addition to the different terms employed by the opposing sides, “external reality”, and “being”, tellingly about a fundamental inability to understand as having any validity the entire concept of the critical or the reflexive, Weinberg referred to the “hermeneutic” as a stick-in-the-craw word:

“I thought at first that Sokal’s article in Social Text was intended to be an imitation of academic babble, which any editor should have recognized as such. But in reading the article I found that this is not the case. The article expresses views that I find surreal, but with a few exceptions Sokal at least makes it pretty clear what these views are. The article’s title ‘Transgressing the Boundaries – Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’, is more obscure than almost anything in his text. (A physicist friend of mine once said that in facing death, he drew some consolation from the reflection that he would never again have to look up the word ‘hermeneutic’ in the dictionary)…”

As a self-taught reflexively-oriented philosopher, frankly, I don’t know why scientists hate the word, “hermeneutic”. But because they do, and admit poor or no understanding of it, it’s not surprising continental philosophy has been ignored. Consider points as follows:

  1. The word means, fundamentally, “interpretation”.
  2. Accordingly, “interpretation” means, and in agreement with Fish, that there is a subject – you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg, or any so-called conscious entity – who understands or seeks to understand things, and this subject inevitably and necessarily comes between the objective reality of the universe such that you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg formulating a description, or characterization, or law, uses your or my or their language – or mathematical symbols – to construct and represent that formulation – and, obviously, the representation is different from the thing represented. We, the subjects, also come between full discovery and understanding, “full” such that if we have made ideally an absolute replica or simulacrum of the original, any such formulation would have to include the observer; the reflexive stance becomes clear also, here, since, as hard science always seeks to remove the “observer bias”, this removal would have to study exactly what the contribution the observer makes to the reconstruction. A key distinction here is between what Sokal refers to as “correspondence with reality” and complete or exact correspondence with reality; more on this key point below. However, for the moment, even without exploring the implications of whether incrementally more accurate descriptions in scientific laws justify being called “laws”, we cannot say that gradual accumulation of knowledge does bring us, theoretically, ever closer to the totality of reality. “Positivism” (discussed in the sidebar article) denies that the observer gets in the way and presumes that reality is transparently available. A good example of how the social context plays a role in the construction of knowledge – or at least of theory – positivism arose at the apex of the industrial revolution. In effect positivism, as a paradigm, declared that we as the subject do nothing to the reality that we observe – we do not construct our ideas about it, it simply appears to us, and the social and historical context plays no part in that construction.
  3. As Kant suggested – though he didn’t use the term – all that “hermeneutic” means is that there is a difference between noumena and phenomena; later philosophers, including Wittgenstein, corrected this dichotomy as not logical because we cannot know noumena and “[w]hat we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence”, as he wrote at the end of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). (8)
  4. What Wittgenstein’s contemporary, Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, and completely opposed in his thinking to Wittgenstein and Wittgenstein’s school of thought, the “logical positivists”, meant when he spoke of intentionality – a key point in continental philosophy – is that consciousness is always consciousness-of-something or “intentional”. Husserl wrote of the “construction of evidence” but also of “radical empiricism”. Following up on this, Sartre distinguished between thetic and non-thetic consciousness, corresponding, for the latter, to the kind of non self-aware consciousness we are enveloped by or fully immersed in; in non-thetic consciousness we are simply taking in what appears to us without reflecting on it as a self-conscious observer. This is often referred to also as “lived experience” or the “lifeworld”, and might be described, roughly, as “emergences” – a perceived but real union between subject and reality, relative only because of the arrow of time. By “union” I mean that an exact simulacrum can be constructed of the real thing; this is so because of the particularity of reality (see below). This is the active, creative consciousness that continental philosophy came to study explicitly by Husserl and which Heidegger looked at with respect to the original creative intersections of human consciousness in time and the world.

In broader answer to Weinberg, his admission as a physicist that all scientific laws are only true and valid in limited circumstances must mean that these laws are not true. “Partially true” is a contradiction in terms – a woman can’t be half-pregnant. On the other hand, Sokal’s insistence on the existence of an external world that exists independent of us; this insistence requires the assumption of a totality, an absolute reality, one reality. Weinberg’s admission, on the one hand, that physical laws are never absolutely precise (though he posits “quantum mechanics” as conceivably absolutely precise), in other words, are partial descriptions of reality, and Sokal’s (and, I am sure, Weinberg’s and most physicists’) assumptions, on the other, about the existence of one (external or objective) reality, reveal or highlight the crux of the matter and how we might get past the disagreements.

I say this even as I understand and find reasonable the way Weinberg speaks about this, and which implies a stability or homeostasis for a period of time, during which the law seems closely or to whatever degree to describe phenomena. But with Weinberg’s disagreement with Kuhn, a subtle point implied here is that “partial” or “temporary truth” that has sudden loss of validity seems to support Kuhn’s conception of paradigms of scientific theory and, therefore, “truths” that have a limited shelf- life.

Furthermore, and in the interest of “common sense”, with regard to Weinberg’s dismissal of Kuhn, I would only tweak Weinberg in the sense that science must consider itself to be an accumulative enterprise in order for the true discovery of the universe to continue, processed by testing to see if a theory is false, per Popper, collecting data to support a proposed theory, and then testing that theory by the same or other data. However, accumulation of knowledge has limits. Apart from terminological considerations, in one more broadly conceptual connection between positivist hard science and continental philosophy, that limits exist is acknowledged by French existentialist, Sartre, when he speaks of the “infinite interiority” of consciousness. (9) This is because, existentially – because of time and finitude – consciousness always overcomes its object.

A related question: doesn’t the correspondence of any scientific law with reality only have meaning when the human subject is included in the consideration and understands the data and how they can be described in that law? In other words, can there be truth without understanding? It seems terminology is in play here, “truth” vs “reality”, the former needing to be confirmed, the latter not. For how can we know things without the dialectic or “lived” interaction with the real, eternal reality? To “understand” – as opposed to believing one understands – means at least a rough union between subject/observer and object/the observed/the universe or reality; full “union”, however, comes only at the putative end of a dialectical process, and can never completely be achieved. This is why scientists such as Weinberg admit to the limitations of scientific laws as operating only within certain parameters.

Yet another nuance I suggest here as comment on Weinberg is that the dichotomy between the particular vs the abstract is relevant to the discussion of partial truth vs truth: all laws of science, all representations that by their nature are limited by the language or the mathematical symbols employed in the representation cannot include or make reference to all of the specifics or particulars of reality. Theory selects data but excludes other data; data confirm but also suggest how the theory does not work. We can say that, of course, the tree falls in Siberia whether one observes this or not. But we cannot speak of this or that “actual” or specific tree falling in Siberia unless we do see it, or unless we are speaking of “it” in the abstract, (10) even as “it” in the abstract is the concept of a particular tree! – as one step further, in a way, from Kant’s noumenon. We are still limited to consciousness-of-something. Even if we do witness the tree falling our perception of it must be distinguished from the tree falling as it occurs in and of itself, about which, according to Wittgenstein and modern science, we cannot speak except as a matter of faith, and as always no more than approximately.

These points bring me to the case I make here to circumvent the stalemate between Sokal and his postmodern adversaries. As continental philosophy makes clear, we can and do know truth and reality as much as it is possible as a lived experiential leap from detail to “larger truth”, as the hermeneutical circle describes, in other words, that includes the observer constructing, to whatever degree, the datum. Statements of certified truth or reality, in order to be accurate, must include the observer’s constructions, either positively or negatively. This assertion admits that truth and reality are relative in the sense of being matters of degree of the observer seeing less or more deeply into the scheme of things. However, since reality is, in effect, changing, and can be described as a matter of degree, and because reality is particular, and, finally, because, existentially, we attend only to particulars, we can and do access and know reality. Finally, reality is particular in the sense that distinct historical epochs exist, during or in which “epistemes” (11) arise – individuals who express truths particular to their epoch, these expressions over-determining or overcoming the particular truths, enabling, therefore, new developments to take place. Truth described by the episteme is creative in the sense that the insight into reality overcomes or is more than, in a sense, the object or entity considered, and this, then, leads to more – or deeper – realizations of reality. Again, there can be no simulacrum of an instant in time, like a snapshot. There can only be – at its best – the scientist (or artist, or philosopher) being seized by a sudden insight that not only takes in or explains data or experience (the “empirical”) in such a way that what is encompassed in the realization or insight is is more than the object considered since ramifications or implications pop into the scientist’s mind.

Let’s follow out this line of thought, because it appears to bring us to a full resolution between hard science and the so-called relativists (giving the benefit of the doubt to those cited here). One might call the reasoning engaged in here Hegelian, in the sense that progression toward the Absolute is in play, the end or the Absolute determining somehow back through time the progression. Now, we have Weinberg’s admission – a common one, I am sure, among hard scientists – that not only are all scientific laws approximations of reality, they are partial, that is, valid only within certain parameters or circumstances. We have to conclude, then, (as have others including Charles Sanders Peirce more than a hundred years ago, rejecting “instrumentalism” (12)) that the existence of a single external reality is a necessary faith by scientists (and resembles Hegel’s Absolute Mind or God as the end of history – necessary because they have as their construction, the notion of an/the absolute at the putative end of scientific inquiry. Now we also have seen how the so-called relativists became entangled in their own rope once they cut the connection to the “radical empiricism” of Husserl. Husserl’s phenomenology, in part, spawned Heidegger’s; at roughly the same time, Sartre was developing his existentialism within which were certain built-in absolutes, one of which was – more or less in concert with Heidegger – the notion of finitude and our own mortality. From this, of course, we are freed from dictates from God and can choose our own actions and construct our own lives, since we alone are responsible for our lives. If death is an absolute, so is the “infinite interiority of consciousness”, again as Sartre put it in Being and Nothingness.

To both Sartre and Heidegger existential choice is not absolutely equivalent with relativism. Humanity is bound to try to avoid “bad faith” and “inauthenticity” (these assertions more or less resemble Kant’s categorical imperative). More to the point, here, epistemologically, and to reiterate, is that just as truth is an acceptable or desired absolute in existentialism, in hard science external reality is a matter of faith and must be held in mind by the scientist. Both are governed by their own rules, but this governance in hard science is a matter determined more by disciplinary and historical factors than a fully logical or unavoidable one. Sartre and Heidegger relied on – claimed human consciousness knows or should know – certain existential verities or absolutes, such as that we die. Alan Sokal and Steven Weinberg must assume the existence of a or the “single external reality”, for, otherwise, none of their work has any meaning. Only in the sense that Sartre and Heidegger did not know that some part of us does not survive physical death, or that metempsychosis does not occur, are their philosophies based on conjecture and faith. Just as a or the “single external reality” is a matter of faith, so is individual finitude. Nevertheless, even if finitude or human mortality is an unproven assumption since we do not know what happens after we die, one-directional time continues to be considered an absolute both by continental philosophy and by physics. (13) This is why time remains a complete mystery to both scientists and philosophers.

The notion of context is relevant here, as is the question, can there be such a thing as partial reality, even in the sense of the social construction of knowledge? For one can ask, how much of true insights about reality depend, for example, on historical context? Can the thing be understood in isolation from its context? Often I have wondered why the Greeks never discovered Descartes’ cogito, which when thinking about it appears transparently true or completely self-evident. (14) That they did not might suggest that a relativist perspective on truth and reality is justified – that there is no single truth or reality but, rather, truths and realities that differ or change through time and depending on circumstance or context. The Greeks may have been right – to a point – with general dichotomies; for example, between Parmenides and Heraclitus – that reality and the universe was one timeless whole or that reality was always changing – or with particular calculations such as Pythagoras’ measurement of the distance between the earth and the moon; more specificity was for whatever reason not sought or required in antiquity. Here is a hint about accumulative knowledge but in the sense I mean it, here, that is, that reality is a matter of degree.

It is only if Kuhn’s theory of paradigmatic change means that a totality of a particular scientific paradigm’s laws lose all validity when a new paradigm replaces it, that is, if there is no carryover. Accordingly, one might ask: did Einstein’s general theory of relativity, followed by and qualified by – and contradicted by! – quantum theory, mean that nothing of what Newton wrote continues to have validity? And even if Newton’s laws are still useful for general purposes, or incorporated within some kind of running general theory of physics or physical mechanics and reality, even as it approximates certain cause and effect operations, as suggested, because they cannot any longer describe and explain a more complete reality revealed by Einstein, can they be considered to be transparently true and in an absolute sense? The answer, of course, is no. “Absolute”, “everything”, and “universal” are words that necessarily can only be considered in philosophy and as zero and infinity in mathematics. Terms that refer to complete or total significance, otherwise, are matters of faith, and every utterance or claim about an absolute that science has both described and explained is qualified or underlain by belief in an absolute standard which we compare our propositions to and that we must believe in, as a matter of faith, in order to make any claim about the validity of an observation. Einstein did speak of “God”, for example, “God” not “throwing dice”. Thinkers, including physicists, ironically must have that same faith that a totality exists, or one ultimate and complete reality, even as they speak confidently of a future “theory of everything” and the lack of the necessity of a god or demiurge creating the universe. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others who decry religion and dependence by so many billions of people around the world on a religion and on God or gods as complete wastes of human time and energy – because, they say, there is no evidence God exists – are unable to provide answers with respect to the totality of reality. Stephen Hawking recently asserted that the existence of “multiverses” could explain why our universe came into existence; in his physics, multiverses spontaneously can create new universes. But, obviously, one can ask about the prime mover: how did the multiverses come into being? Science, of course, does not ask why in an absolute sense. But human beings remain free to ask why; in the human universe as opposed to the universe, the question of meaning is central. Meaning in physics, or in any of the hard sciences, mostly or completely is entirely not of interest, the word having no place in the physicist’s lexicon.

In sum, for the sake of understanding the ramifications of the debate between Sokal and PM thinkers, it is vital to understand that Husserl and subsequent continental philosophers were misinterpreted by the latter (grouped in a very broad stroke here) because they did not understand the full meaning and implication of what continental philosophy refers to as the Lebenswelt or the “life-world”. Admittedly, it is difficult to explain why this is crucial for understanding the necessary connection of this concept to the concept of one accessible reality; one way to understand the connection is by thinking of reality as it is accessed by human beings rather as a “matter of degree”. The Lebenswelt describes nothing other than the consciousness experiencing reality as part of reality. Epistemology begins, then, with the thetic.

This may be the same as asserting that knowledge is accumulative, but it can also mean that a theory that connects or explains more data, and disparate data, such that it simplifies the axiom produced, goes deeper into reality. To the continental or romantic philosopher, in general, who considers the human universe, and what meaning – understanding – is constituted of, the greater degree of “involvement” or the degree of the intensity of the non-thetic consciousness engaged in the world – the “life-world” – the greater the ability of the mind or the intellect to see connections between otherwise disparate data.

Continental philosophy often resorts to literature and language; “literati”, as Weinberg puts it, might cite Gustave Flaubert’s aphorism as apt: “love is the atmosphere of genius”. By this the novelist meant intense involvement in experiencing something can make one privy to deeper insight. In the simplest – non-romantic – sense, the grasping of a concept – a “leap” otherwise between otherwise dead data – exemplifies this and is described by the “hermeneutic circle”. For hard scientists who will squirm at citing a novelist, that is, a writer of fiction, as part of a serious, logical argument, for example, about philosophy, I suggest it is important to keep in mind that the focus of continental philosophy since Descartes has been on so-called subjective evidence which, of course, is the purview of literature; Husserl founded his phenomenology precisely to study human consciousness through phenomena. Late in life Heidegger focuses on the language of poetry studying the great German poet, Hölderlin. Again, contra relativism, Husserl did believe in an objective reality, indirectly accessible via what he theorized as “intersubjectivity”. Sartre and Heidegger explicitly believed in the existence of being as distinct from consciousness, both asserting that “existence precedes essence”.

Pink Flying Elephants and Moons of Green Cheese

Some further thoughts to illustrate the points made above. If we posit the absolute – one reality – as we do existentially with respect to our mortality and finitude (in our quotidian life whether conscious of it or not), and which scientists like Sokal and Weinberg assume as a bottom line in their work, the following line of argument might be constructed. If we posit or assume one reality – the Absolute – by necessary logic an infinity not only of possibilities exist but an infinity of things does exist. (15) One might ask, for example, do pink flying elephants and moons made of green cheese exist? With such a question we see where the correspondence between the representation of things – constructed in language or mathematical symbols – and the things, themselves, breaks down. We can understand how the “subject”, you or I or Alan Sokal or Steven Weinberg, must absolutely necessarily be included in our calculations of reality. For, here, we see the intimate or intrinsic connection between the Absolute and the relative or “subjective” – you cannot have one without the other.

This has a parallel, epistemologically, in that you cannot have the particular without the abstract – the actual thing and the simulacrum or representation of it; again, this is “all we can talk about” since we have no transparent connection immediately to the actual thing except in the Lebenswelt which does not permit us reflexively to abstract the particular for the purpose of general “laws”. But let’s continue to consider pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese. Again, if we assume the Absolute or one reality, then we must admit not just the possibility that such entities exist but the necessity that not only they but any seemingly absurd thing has to exist! On the other hand, physics, and “common sense”, tell us that pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese not only do not exist, they cannot exist. Why is there this seemingly impassible contradiction? It is clear from this argument that the representation – in this case, in the words, “pink flying elephants” and “moons of green cheese” – is what makes us conclude such entities do not exist, although we don’t have any direct evidence that they do or do not exist. Again, any representation – always and only from the “distanced” perspective of the thetic consciousness – of an actual thing existing in our one reality is not the thing. Indeed, it is entirely plausible that scientists in the future may discover entities in the universe that they call “ pink flying elephants” and “moons of green cheese”, and perhaps even because there are some actual correspondences between such words, at a different point in time, and real things, that what is absurd to us now is not absurd any longer, the words conceivably used as metaphors, for example, for things that are not absurd, or, much more speculatively – and, of course, such speculation at present is crazy – if scientists do determine that what we understand through our language or symbols as irreal or imaginary actually has some kind of real connection or relation to real things!

Accordingly, the misunderstanding between Sokal and his adversaries in PM thought is due to neither side appreciating how there is a continual dialectic between our assumption of one reality, and our accumulation of evidence for it and the things in it, employing symbols (words or mathematical symbols) to represent this one reality, e.g., “everything” and ∞ and the things in it.

By this reasoning we can see how, epistemologically and ontologically, the only fully humanly constructed thing is the Absolute, or one single reality, for there is no evidence whatsoever that such an absolute exists – it is a matter purely of logic, or faith, albeit also an assumption necessary for any serious or scientific effort to know the universe or, better put, being or “what is”. We can also see how the only way we can consider these matters is to include the subject or the observer, for, otherwise, there would be no basis upon which to decide if something exists or does not, and/or if our representation of such a real thing is accurate or not. The usual example of the observer or consciousness affecting or being part of reality is described by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. If physicists could truly understand and explain how or why the uncertainty principle – which is only a partial or even merely descriptive “principle” – I believe, as many physicists believe, an understanding would develop as to how quantum theory truly, to date, is only descriptive and not analytic or explanatory – that is, that quantum theory will be explained in such a way that the phenomena, for example, of entanglement or superposition, will be understood by expanded laws of cause of effect.

Accordingly, we can see how PM theorists do emphasize the role of the subject or the observer in the construction of reality, even as relativism – asserting that one reality does not exist or that we cannot declare there is one reality – makes the same error that Sokal and Weinberg make in excluding the necessity of the dialectic between observer and observed in the determination of reality, an existential enterprise which is continual and ongoing. (16) Accordingly, both sides in the controversy made errors in thinking about the issues. Nevertheless, as I have tried to articulate, reality is particular. This means that we can say with certitude that there is one reality – which others call being – and epistemologically we can know particulars of one reality, albeit this is mediated by the episteme or epistemes rising above their particular historical epochs.

In sum, as I’ve said, the only completely constructed things in the universe are absolutes: nothingness, infinity, eternity. By definition, nothingness is nothing; it does not exist. Infinity and eternity do not exist because if we add ourselves or anything to these absolutes they neither add nor subtract from them. Accordingly, they do not exist because they are outside the range of real possibilities. We can only have discernible – observable – particularities, which though instantly we abstract them, are real because they are constructed from data in the dialectic between observer and observed, mediated by epistemic “leaps” from data to theory. A similarity or union can be envisioned, therefore, between positivist physics and continental philosophy, specifically in Heidegger’s formulation of time as an absolute reflected or required by finitude, that is, made epistemologically certain or unassailably existent, by Dasein – which expresses the notion of the “thereness” of being human or consciousness in the world and in time, again underlain by the cogito.

Further Thoughts on Time: Can the Hadron Collider Find the Chronon? And the Significance of Particularity or the Unique

Following are some thoughts offered in the hope of comment from informed readers of Spike that are intended to show that the divide between the opposing sides in Sokal’s hoax is small and might, on analysis, be illusory, with the sticking points caused by choice of particular words and by writing styles.

But, first, a little aside of completely playful speculation. Since time is such a mystery, and thinking as physicists, working from their positivist attitude, can all phenomena ultimately be reduced to physical particles? For example, for a long time I have thought about the chronon – a particle of time. Can or will the great collider at CERN not only find the Higgs boson but the chronon? If it can find the latter, and it collected enough chronons and then inserted them into a collection of other, undoubtedly much more lasting particles, what would happen? If time is an absolute with endless or infinite possibilities, but as time means that particulars always are produced as time flows on, what would the interaction produce? A pink flying elephant or a moon of green cheese? Or would the new entity simply be the same one before the introduction of the chronons into it but as it appears or is at a later or earlier time? I do hope a physicist reads this and comments.

Leaving aside my speculative fantasies, in consideration of time or temporality, only if time and history stopped or did not exist would a “theory of everything” – this phrase bandied about commonly by cosmologists and physicists – be possible. (17) Heidegger’s magnum opus is entitled Being and Time because the two notions are co-dependent; human being, or consciousness, he refers to as Dasein, “being-there”, to indicate that there is no being except as man is “in the world”, or “already there”. Existence precedes essence. Recall Husserl’s intentionality. With these self-given insights we can see how the division between subject and object is dissolved.

And here, with great trepidation as a non-physicist I venture to mention that, as Weinberg suggests about quantum “entanglement” or “superposition”, the identity paradox, otherwise, is in effect: because of time, one can never fabricate an exact duplicate of something. Any simulacrum of an object or entity, because of time and history, encounters to whatever degree the effect on the accuracy of the reconstruction of the entity by the observer. As another possible corollary, the uncertainty principle, Weinberg describes as follows: “Electrons in atoms do not have definite velocities or positions until these properties are measured, and the measurement of an electron’s velocity wipes out all knowledge of its position” (op. cit.). I qualify the suggestion that this law brings to mind time and uniqueness in a or the history of particular events by adding that this physical law is repeatable sufficiently such that we can consider it to describe real phenomena, while non-scientific suggestions of cause remain theoretical and unprovable. And again, in systematic fashion, the nature and implications of time and agentive history is explored by continental philosophers such as Heidegger.

Now, if we assume that there is an objective, real universe – a universe of all and everything that does exist in reality, and for purposes of argument, of all of the possible multiverses included within one overall and absolute universe – scientific determinations, for example, by physicists, that construct mathematically or in whatever way an exact duplicate of that one overall universe, are not possible. This is, again, because of time and the existence of the observer whose observation does have an impact on the observed; this is to say that there cannot be an immediate and transparent revelation corresponding exactly and in every way to the thing observed. Any reconstruction must include the fact that physicists built the duplicate, the least of which alteration from original to copy is that this history would not be contained in the original. More generally, since we, and presumably the universe, as well, exist in time, and even as time has been shown, because of the effect of gravity, to be variable, the clock never stops ticking and all objects or entities, therefore, would seem to have at least the unique characteristic of a time when they exist. Only, theoretically, before the Big Bang that presumably created the universe, was there no time. But more emphatically, in consideration of lived experience or the Lebenswelt, the observer does construct do whatever degree the “truth”, abstracted from particular data.

Concluding Thoughts

When I was nine years old, I asked my older brother what every thoughtful child sooner or later wonders: “Why are we here?” With the intention of being constructive (!) in a positive way (!), and to clarify the issues – it boils down to one dichotomy: scientific truth versus existential truth – that we were born and will die, or that time exists, which means that at some points in time we exist but also did not or will not or do not exist. Such speculation produces the same question that physicists, including Einstein, do, themselves, often ask: why is the universe amenable to human understanding?; why does the universe seem to conform so closely to mathematics? It is the same question as that of asking why does the universe/this universe exist? Hawking’s claim must depend on an infinity of multiverses, and infinity, by definition, is unattainable, or is a necessary fiction.

Physicists, definitely, and by necessity, are positivists; hence, they do claim that human beings can ultimately know everything. This constitutes their great and noble quest. Physics, the king of the sciences, approaches the issue from the point of view of that objective, putatively ultimate reality, searching for axioms ideally as simple as e=mc2, or, presumably, one or the Axiom for Everything. Philosophers, specifically continental or romantic philosophers, culminating for the time being (excuse the wording!) in Heidegger’s Being and Time, approach the issue from the point of view of us, of human consciousness, of we and our consciousness included in or as part of the totality of the universe we live in and seek to understand. Accordingly, in effect, both sides are headed in exactly the same direction. Physics seeks to solve or unify in one grand “theory of everything” the question. Philosophy seeks to explain in some ultimate fashion what being is and how and why it exists. Again, worth thinking about is the distinction between objective, external reality, on the one hand, and being, on the other.

Finally, to return to the ins and outs of the Sokal controversy – and, again, with admiration for his accomplishment with the hoax because it raised very important issues at the time – in 2009 an interview with Sokal by Julian Baggini appeared online. This might be the last interview Sokal gives on the subject (I emailed him a couple of times but got no response). In the interview Sokal clarified and confirmed that he was not delving into pure philosophical matters, but that, instead, his sole purpose was to jar the professional intellectual world – those in this world, social scientists and critical thinkers, in particular, who wrote about science – into not writing nonsense any longer. It is worth quoting him at some length, here.

“My original motivation had to do with epistemic relativism and what I saw as a rise in sloppily thought-out relativism, being the kind of unexamined zeitgeist of large areas of the American humanities and some parts of the social sciences… The debate I was trying to raise was much cruder. [I] give the example of the anthropologist and two theories of the origin of native American populations, one that they came from Asia, which is the archaeological consensus, the other the traditional native American creation myths… that their ancestors always lived in the Americas… [A]nd the anthropologists said, ‘Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. The Zuni world-view is just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is all about.’ So we go through and try and disentangle what [the anthropologist] means by ‘just as valid.’ There are certain interpretations of that which are unobjectionable but don’t say much, there are other versions that do say something significant which we think are grossly false. [I have] had long discussions with anthropologists who really refused to admit that a culture’s cosmology could be objectively true or false. Their beliefs about the origin of the universe, or the movements of the planets or whatever, could only be judged true or false relative to a culture. [And not] just questions of cosmology, questions of history. And [I] asked, ‘Does that mean that the fact that millions of native Americans died in the wake of the European invasion, is that not an objective fact, [but is] merely a belief that’s held to be true in some cultures?’ [I] never got a straightforward answer from them”.

As an anthropologist, I suspect Sokal may have misheard the anthropologists. Certainly I would never claim that in point of fact, denial of the European invasion of the Americas and the millions of dead indigenous that resulted, was not true. Having said this, to some degree in order to make a useful point not only iconoclasts throughout history but standard theoretical propositions exaggerate the arguments – in effect, at least partially construct the opposing view. Motivated by the threat of contamination of truth and objective reality, perpetrated in outraged defense of attacks he saw against the nature and intent of science, Sokal drove a nail into the coffin of postmodernism, cultural studies, lit crit, deconstruction, etc. It contributed to, or accelerated, a growing consensus even among social scientists and anthropologists that postmodernism had gone too far. Social commentators and social scientists, in general, replied to the question “Is everything a social construct?” with the short answer, “No”. A longer answer must acknowledge that there is no exact mirror to truth, and that even the hard scientist does construct her/his facsimile, but a continuing dialectic between theory and data takes place to make the reflection sharper and sharper.

Finally, even if “subjective” feelings and thoughts may well be, most of the time, far from reflective of reality, and, by the same token, the scientific method must be tested by the extreme test of falsifiability, it may be that any discussion of a history of science will be suspicious to hard scientists, whose credo is the objective, falsifiable knowledge enterprise. Even to call it an “enterprise” may raise hackles. And there still are many social scientists and theorists of social thought who wage the war against the “status quo” with its history that produced “sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism [and] capitalism”, as Weinberg wrote, characterizing the political agenda of the so-called relativists. In other words, there still are many among those Sokal was attacking who believe that there are events, agents, and processes in history that continue to distort any conclusion or assertion about the whole entity, whatever the supposedly neutral or objective scientist produces, for example, as a theory based on data. As I wrote in my previous article in Spike on the Frankfurt School, the Enlightenment, itself – the historical epoch considered to have provided the basis for modern science – is usefully subject to the kind of critical or reflexive analysis as Horkheimer and Adorno showed in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. As I also wrote in my article for Spike on the Frankfurt School, perhaps Marx’s materialist analyses of history and economics turn out not to be relative but to have objectively discernible results in, for example, the Bolshevik revolution, Mao, and Castro. Even if Marx as analyst of history has come up short in many ways, History, itself, is as real as quantum mechanics, and by and in it cause and effect can be observed, even if, like physical laws written by physicists, one can never be complete in one’s explanations of cause and effect.

Social Text is it still being published by Duke University Press. The very short Wikipedia entry describes it as “…[addressing] a wide range of social and cultural phenomena, covering questions of gender, sexuality, race, and the environment. Each issue covers subjects in the debates around feminism, Marxism, neoliberalism, post-colonialism, postmodernism, queer theory, and popular culture”. I believe Alan Sokal was the first, and the last, physicist contributor. Dr. Sokal still teaches, with joint appointments as professor at New York University and University College London.

Further Reading:


  1. “Continental philosophy” is usually contrasted with “analytic philosophy”. The former begins with Descartes, passes through the German idealists, is followed by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Kierkegaard – with whose thinking the “turn” from epistemology to ontology took place – and continues in the 20th century with Husserl, founder of phenomenology, which, in turn, led to Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Heidegger; offshoots are Gadamer and Ricoeur. Postmodern philosophers and thinkers such as Foucault and Baudrillard belong to the continental philosophical tradition, although their radical critique of what was defined as the modern – which ended with Sartre – and although a genuine impulse, both went too far along one path of thinking with its focus more or less completely on the subject or observer and diminished the external or Sartre’s in-itself. Analytic philosophy is rooted in the belief that logic and language alone can solve the deepest questions of epistemology, metaphysics, and the other subfields in philosophy. Analytic philosophy takes inspiration from the British empiricists and continues to Wittengenstein’s early writings and continuing with philosophers such as Austin and Quine.
  2. Note the predominance of French intellectuals. In 1997 Sokal and Jean Bricmont published a book first in France entitled Impostures Intellectuelles (Editions Odile Jacob, Paris) that purported to extend and clarify the issues raised by the parody in Social Text. In a later interview, Sokal charged “…gross abuse of terminology from the natural sciences in the writings both [sic] of French, American and British authors, but the French ones are the more prominent, they’re the big stars”.
  3. During my years as a graduate student in anthropology at Yale in the 1990s this was certainly the case.
  4. This is a sweeping assertion and should be supported by a very extended discourse. With limited space in Spike, I make the assertion anticipating objections and calls for explanation. Comment on the article and email me for further discussion. Fundamentally, my suggestion for a rapprochement between Sokal and his adversaries in the controversy revolves around the acknowledgment of the fully dialectical nature of the enterprise of building scientific knowledge, “fully” because discovery of reality and construction of knowledge of reality require both subject and object, observed and observer. Where what positivist science insists is a transparent correspondence between the two breaks down is where, or when, our representation in language or mathematical symbol of the real object turns out to be wrong – we only find this out because we have represented the real object in concrete and particular words of symbols. See the discussion of “pink flying elephants and moons of green cheese”.
  5. Time and meaning remain two concepts that need to be explored more thoroughly by physicists and existential philosophers; or philosophers should think of a way to articulate what these are in the most simple terms – taking from Heidegger, for example – to physicists, and physicists should do the same for pbhilosophers.
  6. Sokal’s web page very usefully provides links to most of the other interesting and important responses – slings and arrows mainly, but not only – by such as Derrida, but also by other hard scientists.
  8. Wittgenstein did not grasp the notion of the “hermeneutic circle”, by which the apparently inexplicable leap – actually an instantaneous dialectic – is made between data and theory, or between the part and the whole.
  9. “Infinite interiority” is only sensible in the existential perspective. Evolutionary psychology, a relatively new discipline, would tend to contradict this by revealing the development and functional dynamic of human psychology, including how this manifests in consciousness, as evolutionarily determined, in other words, at risk of oversimplification, revealing “human nature”.
  10. “Specific” vs “abstract” is a curious dichotomy. We cannot know the unique specific or particular except in theory or putatively; however, the existential perspective requires assumption of it because of the existential dialectic of for-itself constructing and “killing” by objectifying – taking out of History, time, and life – the in-itself for the sake of transcendence and continuance. Sartre says that consciousness and the for-itself forever flees being – because the for- itself can never be complete and continue to live; but, at the same time, the for-itself forever needs to objectify the other. This continual play between for-itself and in-itself is what constitutes human consciousness and the life of the individual person, as well as, as anthropology demonstrates, the group, of the society. The dichotomy between the particular and the abstract functions in the following manner: the for-itself must look for the particular – and either in “lived experience” takes not of it but non-reflexively or does not abstract it or does abstract it or generalize about it, “killing” it by delegating it to the general, and this latter Sartre characterizes as the “flight from being”.
  11. The term comes from Foucault.
  12. Instrumentalism avoids the realism/anti-realism debate, and may be better characterised as non-realism. Instrumentalism shifts the basis of evaluation away from whether or not phenomena observed actually exist, and towards an analysis of whether the results and evaluation fit with observed phenomena”. The point is that this concept must be discarded from the debate precisely because both science and existential philosophy require consideration of one reality, or of being.
  13. Physicists and cosmologists speak of the “arrow of time”. Even as time has been shown because of the effect of gravity to be variable, the clock never stops ticking and all objects or entities, therefore, would seem to have at least the unique characteristic of a time when they exist and when they do not. Only, theoretically, before the Big Bang that presumably created the universe, was there no time.
  14. Although philosophy also ends up with partial descriptions of universal or singular reality. In the strict sense, cogito ergo sum should be amended to cogito ergo cogitationes or even cogitationes ergo cogitationes because the experience of the thought or thoughts does not necessarily stipulate the existence of anything but the thought of thoughts.
  15. And this makes us realize, again, with regard to the specific or particular, or the unique, the dialectical pole, necessarily, logically, is the eternal or the infinite. Existentially, because we die, our consciousness is confronted by an infinity of possibilities, while we live.
  16. So long as societies continue to value the knowledge enterprise.
  17. As a non-physicist, I might ask, can this be equated in some way with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?

Dear Moustache

One morning Ryan Agius decided to shave off his facial hair. Feel the pain

Dear Mustache,

Today I write in response to your being splattered along the rim of my bathroom sink.

I am responsible.

As death will do, it has taken away much resemblance to your mighty original form – yet I remember you fondly thick and bristly right there under my nose. Simply put, my lip never felt more befriended than with your hundreds of hairs, a little army of a stiff upper lip, there. There, but not territorial – giving room for a smile or scowl as it came. As a mustache, you wanted nothing other than to grow, to be – like some Zen cat that only comes to you when it wants. I know, mustache, you never had such thoughts. But this is your death and all, so I’m trying to make the whole business of being removed from my being – forever – as important as it should be.

As I trace the smoothness of my upper lip with the very hand that held the razor, I know you are gone, and yet I have hope that tomorrow, or perhaps later this evening, my touch will discover new earth – new roughness – stubble!

Will these be your sons and daughters, offspring finally making good on the promise of longevity, like aliens to our human race? Or do you even think in terms of parenting, producing – the future? After all, you are the produced. You simply sprout, no questions asked: a biochemical reaction whereby the pituitary gland regulates the pushing of black follicles through the pores of the skin. But who has ever pushed you, mustache, besides me – the man whose Mach 3 razor blade, the cruel guillotine of hygiene, cut your life short.

So now in my bathroom I look down to avoid my eyes in the toothpaste-smeared mirror and face the dead that lay unrecognizable, nameless, squiggly stunts that cling to the rim o f the sink. No longer is there the elegance that unified what unmistakably stood for a mustache. Is this why I cannot bear to turn the water on and release you from the limbo of your porcelain cross? Perhaps I am waiting for something more dramatic to qualify such a great loss: vultures and deserts and one-shoed men strumming mandolins to let the waters flow.

Perhaps there is something more.

At first you were a faint shadow on my upper lip and then darkened into a form which most people didn’t take seriously, even me. Some looked at me as if there was a mistake – some kind of mistake I was not aware of. It was too much of an impossibility, like UFOs in New York City. People may say they want to entertain the sheer awesomeness of other Life but in the end such thoughts are too vexing to their daily routine of iced mocha grandes and picking up their children from daycare.

The month I let you grow I learned the courage required for change – something so very rare in us humans. I wore you with a quiet confidence as though it were 1973. It was never easy. I had to endure stares of frenzied admiration and confusion. Mothers moved their children from the length of my touch. Twenty-something girls giggled as they passed. More than once, especially with my shades on, I heard “Unabomber” vocalized. Elderly women put down their groceries to acknowledge you and remember their once living husbands’ Clark Gable-inspired pencil mustaches. In the end I hadn’t the strength to surrender fully and be lost within you – to give and take so much from others who were caught unaware that it was I beneath you.

So I stand alone now – hairless.

I cannot say whether I am happy or sad. I just stand alone thinking about life and thinking about death and how mustaches, like true, good women, come along once, maybe twice in a man’s life.

Having to go to work, I finally turn the faucets on. I take care to watch you pass, some in a clumped crescendo, some more begrudgingly – one by one, it seems. As the water continues in clear helixes I imagine salmon fighting upstream to lay their eggs, and then all at once, perhaps because I fear I will miss my bus, I turn the faucets off and tell myself fish aren’t supposed to feel pain.

I remember hearing the same is true of hair. I leave with some of you still holding on.

For now and perhaps forever,

Your Wearer

The Queerest Of The Queer: What It Means To Be A Queer Punk

Luke Velazquez on the singular experience of the queer punk scene, reflected in the work of sculptor Fernando Carpaneda

In our society, people are expected to behave in a certain way. To grow up, go to school, work a soulless dead end job, squirt out a few kids for the good of the commonwealth and do so without question. But occasionally, a person, or a group of people, comes along and they pursue their own path – a path that draws the ire and the contempt of the masses, but also spawns jealousy and the desire for their lives to be so free of monotony. Eventually, these people find one another, and their numbers grow, turning into a community with its own set of ideals, values, beliefs and aesthetics. They turn their backs on the masses, which in turn, peek over their shoulders to catch a glimpse of their lives, and their ways, to see why they are so content to be living a life so different from all others.

Whether you’re a queer or a punk, it means that you’ve got an attitude that the masses disagree with, and that you’ve dedicated yourself to a life of constant scrutiny. But to be a queer punk means that even among your own kind, you can still be an outsider. As lines are drawn and ideas are solidified, people have been pushed out of either community. This happens for the sake of preserving everyone’s best interests, or to keep the scene ‘pure’. Despite this, however, we exist, and we walk the line between fringe groups, too gay to be a punk, too hardcore to be a fag. And even though discrimination happens, for every hater you’ll meet ten times as many supporters in the gay community or in the punk scene. No other social circles out there can say that they are as open minded or accepting as ours. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what side you stand on, as long as you’re proud of who you are.

The works of Fernando Carpaneda show us a world of carnal desire, where the line between queer and punk is non-existent. Here, we see men unafraid of embracing their libido and all the dark alleyways it may take them down. His depicts his punks, stripped of their studded leather jackets, tight pants and chains, bared naked to the world, so that we can see who they really are. This is done, less as an act of sexual depravity, and more an expression of their overt and undeniable masculinity. Fernando’s works serve as a reminder that sexuality is a pillar on which both the gay scene and the punk scene have drawn on for support, and despite all the differences, the two scenes will constantly look to one another for inspiration. So whether you’re gay, straight, bi or otherwise, a punk rocker or a scene queen: stay proud, stay true, stay queer.


Fernando Carpaneda:Queer.Punk.
Open daily, June 26th to July 2nd,1-6pm
The Leslie/Lohman Basement Annex
127-B Prince Street, New York City, NY 10012

Carpaneda’s sculptures reflect the extraordinary side of the human element. Hustlers, rent boys, punk rockers, unknown artists, junkies, thieves and outcasts are recreated to the minutest detail in clay.  Parts of the artist’s own clothing are hand tailored into miniature wardrobes. In the style of the17th-century paintings of secular subjects, human hair and modern day relics are incorporated into each piece to reflect a sense of capturing a moment in time.The artist takes his inspiration from the urban element and uses the language of the street along with his own experiences with drugs and street life. His bold artistic statements  as a gay activist are painstakingly expressed through this controversial work. Often sexual in nature, his ‘in your face’ approach to the acceptance of gay sexuality and the Queer Punk lifestyle are recreated to provoke and inspire the observer.

Further Resources:

Repackaged Misogyny: Natasha Walter: Living Dolls

Jacob Knowles-Smith considers whether gender politics have lost their direction and clout through the prism of two recent books

Anyone who has even the briefest acquaintance with nightclubs in recent years will have seen girls dressed as Playboy bunnies in almost just their underwear, replete with stockings and suspenders, quite as frequently as one will see girls who are, indeed, dressed only in their underwear or a bikini. Perhaps less often, one will see girls on dance floors kissing each other in order to garner male attention. The latter scenario usually creates quite a scrum of groping limbs where not an eyelash is batted by either side – though some may be fluttered.

Of course, it could be that this reviewer consorts with the seamier side of society but, more probably, it illustrates that the subjects of Natasha Walter’s book, Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, are commonplace in modern life. The same also goes for pornography, strip clubs and, probably less common, but not much more taboo, prostitution. In her chapter about pornography Walter gives statistics from a 2007 Canadian report showing that 90 per cent of boys aged 13-14 and 70 per cent of girls the same age had viewed pornography, so it’s no great stretch to imagine that most people have seen porn at some time (take a look at Spike’s most popular articles). No stag night, or business lunch, for that matter, seems to be complete without a visit to a strip club – but if that doesn’t do it for you, then why not take a plane to Amsterdam to really see the groom off with a bang, so to speak.

Indeed so commonplace are these elements discussed in Walter’s book that to object to them is viewed as the highest prudery. Therefore, it is testament to Walter’s skill that she is able to maintain a non-judgemental perspective throughout the book and repeats that there is obviously nothing wrong with the desire to appear attractive and that, with something like pornography, it is the individual’s choice whether to enjoy it. And it would seem that the promoters of lad’s mags and pornography alike are keen to emphasise that the whole thing is a matter of choice.

It is this idea of ‘choice’ that Walter opposes: the choice to be ‘empowered’; the choice not to be stuck in a dead-end job if you can use your body your make more money; the choice to divorce emotion from sex (both professionally, if you are, say, a pole dancer, and in your personal life); but it all seems to boil down to the choice to accept the notion that, in order to be a liberated modern woman, you need to be hyper-sexualised and turn yourself into a parody of a glamour model or even an R&B performer – this misogyny repackaged as feminism. As one burlesque performer interviewed in Living Dolls puts it, “serving up misogyny with a tasteful package of feathers”. Whilst more literal in the burlesque dancer’s case, it nicely illustrates how this has become part of the status quo, right down to the marketing of the provocative Bratz dolls to little girls.

The two most prominent arguments about working in the sex industry seem to be of the ‘it’s just a bit of fun, and everyone wins’ kind or the ‘it’s unfortunate that they have to do it, but they do get paid’ kind. If we discount the idea that women get into it because they like sex as risible (though that could be one reason for initially entering the business), money is obviously the chief preoccupation and is an understandable concern. But, as Noam Chomsky points out, arguing that it’s a good thing because they get paid is like arguing in favour of sweatshops because those workers (usually women) are paid and consented; and that we need to eliminate the conditions where women cannot get good jobs. There is, of course, the caveat to that argument that not everyone can be a doctor or a lawyer and, taking our society as we find it, some people have to perform minimum wage jobs – so what are they to do? Not counting exceptions such as Jenna Jameson, who produces her own pornography films, for every performer whom we might think of as well paid, imagine how much money the owners of production companies make. Even the most autonomous female performer, director or producer is still fuelling the needs of an industry that, in the vast majority, caters to the male desire. As Chomsky flatly states, women in pornography are “degraded as vulgar sex objects” and this is echoed by Ellie, a lap dancer interviewed in Living Dolls, “If you say it’s really degrading, and you did that, it says so much about you, or it feels as if it does. But it is degrading.”

In 1971 a debate about feminism (filmed as Town Bloody Hall – see link below) was held at the Town Hall on West 43rd Street in Manhattan. Speaking were prominent proponents of feminism and women’s rights Jackie Ceballos, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and, the biggest draw, Germaine Greer. Chaired by Norman Mailer (described by Greer as an embodiment of “the most powerful figure… in male elitist society, namely, the masculine artist”) on his best form, the atmosphere captured in the film almost crackles with passion, there’s something of the rock concert about the whole event and I struggle to imagine a packed hall with such intensity of feeling, banter and heckling flying between Mailer and the audience, happening today. In 1970 Clive James, in a review of The Female Eunuch for The Observer, airs his concerns that the real message of Greer’s work will be obscured by the deluge of publicity surrounding the author. Is there any room in the modern media for feminism between Katie Price busting out of the gossip column and ‘boys will be boys’ stories about the sexual practices of footballers?

So has feminism stalled?

One might be led to think so by Martin Amis’s last novel The Pregnant Widow, which suggests that the sexual revolution somehow lost its way, and by the somewhat shrugging acceptance of the empowerment theory by people like pornography director, Anna Span: “Women are exploring their bodies more”. However, one of the most affecting voices in the book, a teenage girl called Carly, rebuffs this idea. For Carly the pressure placed on young women to conform to a certain type of image of womanhood is “just like you don’t have any choice”. Thus, the only ‘choice’ women really have is to conform.

Another girl points out that she didn’t have the voice to speak out against her friends, boys and girls, that she didn’t know there was anything wrong with the pressure put upon her, like Carly, to look a certain a certain way and become sexually active. This seems to be the crux of the matter, girls need to be equipped with enough knowledge to speak out when they feel objectified and not just about the biology of sex. As Walter says, there is nothing intrinsically with wrong with strip clubs, porn, etc. but, while they can be fun, “in the current context, in which women’s value is so relentlessly bound up with how successfully they are seen as sexually alluring, we can see that certain choices are celebrated, while others are marginalised, and this clearly has a major effect on the behaviour of many men and women”. As for men, obviously one could never, nor would want to, stop them desiring sex, but if, as Walter suggests throughout, women are truly empowered at an early age, given the full range of real life choices available to them and taught that they don’t need to be, or idolise, so-called sex symbols, then perhaps that way there can be a complimentary, gradual effect on the male psyche.

The point is, however, that feminism cannot be rushed and is, and always has been, a continual struggle. Walter points out that those who criticize the status quo suffer opprobrium and are branded with that most disdainful tag of ‘elitist’, hopefully it will be clear from this article that this author is not afraid of such things.

Further Resources:

Insight, Imagination and Innovation: Taking Your Place in the Modern Music Biz

Across the span of 85+ interviews and within the wisdom of 100,000+ words, a cast of characters across all strata of the music industry reveals an astonishing diversity of paths and purposes in It All Begins with the Music: Developing Artists and Careers for the New Music Business. Spike asked the author Dan Kimpel for his bullet-point plan

“To survive in our business, it is necessary to be fluid, to understand trends and timing, while never losing sight of the big picture,” my co-author Don Grierson observes in his introduction. Clearly, those who thrive in our volatile world are those who heed that message. To these ends, here are some choice quotes from a cross-section of sources that serve as a barometer of how the music business is evolving.

“Prince left Warner Bros. over what he thought were restrictions. He wanted to release music when he finished it. He didn’t want to wait for a release cycle, he wanted it to be out there. Fresh. You need to exploit that connection. There has never been a better time for innovative music and musicians.”
– Ted Cohen: TAG Strategic

“I don’t think there’s a music business that’s going to say, ‘Wow! We’re thrilled with your experience and education’. People have a need to help promote music and artists like crazy. As long as there’s a need, that means you have a job.”
– Jim Guerinot, manager: No Doubt, Gwen Sefani, Nine Inch Nails, Social Distortion

“The best artists know who they are and are really comfortable creating something from nothing. They are confident melodists and lyricists and have something to say. A song is a short story. I love a writer who can say something profound or poignant in a simple way. Language and message is everything in an artist.”
– Rick Nowels, songwriter/producer: Madonna, John Legend, Dido, Keith Urban

“People ask, ‘What does a great bio look like? What kind of picture do I need? Don’t hear my stuff, it’s not mastered, we have another guitar part to add’. But none of this will create a hit song for you. If it were an amazing song, it could have nothing more than an acoustic guitar.”
– Michael Laskow, president: TAXI

“Write a hundred songs a year for a few years. You will eventually write songs that people understand.”
– Toby Gad, songwriter: ‘If I Were a Boy’ (Beyonce), ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ (Fergie)

“The best defense against wasting your time is making music you love and believe in. Make a record you want to listen to in 20 years, even if it doesn’t sell.”
– Steve Greenberg, president: S-Curve Records (Joss Stone)

“A lot of it is the ‘X-Factor’ and if something moves me as a fan of music. If it doesn’t move me, how is it supposed to move anyone else? Many times your heart sinks because it’s just not there. I can never judge or pre-judge where an artist or a songwriter comes from, small town or big town, but a guy with a guitar case, a legal pad, and pencil can change my life, and it can change their lives. I’m always open to that.”
– Doug Howard: Disney Music Publishing Nashville

“Get rid of the drunks and drug addicts in your band because they will suck the life out of you. Look at every opportunity and educate yourself. Fire your mother if she’s a drug addict. Don’t get married before your career starts. Every girl has ‘Yoko Ono disease’. Nothing and no one should stop you. Everyone you think is important will try to stop you and demand your time. Give yourself all the time and attention because no one else will pay your salary or your rent.”
– Gene Simmons: KISS

Author/educator/music journalist and networking guru Dan Kimpel contributes to a dizzying variety of print and electronic mediums. His recent interview subjects include Patti Smith, Ray LaMontagne and John Legend. If you fly Delta Airlines, you can hear Dan’s interviews with recording artists and songwriters on the airline’s in-flight audio programming. Dan’s bestselling music industry books including Networking Strategies for the New Music Business, Electrify My Soul: Songwriters and the Spiritual Source, How They Made It: True Stories of How Music’s Biggest Stars Went From Start to Stardom, Networking in the Music Business and It All Begins with the Music: Developing Successful Artists & Careers for the New Music Business, co-authored with legendary A&R executive, Don Grierson.

Further Resources:

Bringing It All Back Home: Dylan at 70

As Dylan turns 70, Robert O’Connor travels back up Highway 61 to untangle the myths and legends

“Where did you come from, Cotton-eye Joe?”

That’s the first question Studs Terkel asked Bob Dylan on his legendary radio show in 1963. Bob didn’t really answer then, and he hasn’t really answered since. He’s given hints, and ever since Toby Thompson’s attempt in 1971, biographers have tried to find out where Bob Dylan came from. They know where Bobby Zimmerman came from, but Bob Dylan is a bit more elusive.

Bobby Zimmerman was a motorcycle riding rock-n-roll playing greaser when he arrived in Minneapolis in 1959 as a student at the University of Minnesota. By the next year, he had become Bob Dylan, the folksinger, the would-be troubador who idolized Odetta and Woody Guthrie.

It’s not clear when Bobby started using the name Bob Dylan – stories range from October of 1959, when he began playing at the Ten O’Clock Scholar, a coffee shop in Dinkytown where the local musicians hung out. Others say he started using it when he was still at Hibbing High School. The most common story is that he adopted it after the poet Dylan Thomas, while others claim it was in tribute to Matt Dillon, the main character on Gunsmoke, which he was a big fan of.

Legend runs through Bob Dylan’s life story, and the many biographies of him are all very different because of these stories – some of them made up by Bob himself. Right when I was finishing up this piece, Bob had a rare post on his website explaining his recent trip to China, saying at the end that there were a gazillion books on him and encouraged anybody who knew him to write their own.

Highway 61

“Dylan is a genius, that’s all. He is irksome and irritating, very much the Chekhov genius. He is not more complex than most people; he is simpler.
I knew when I met him that he was very talented… He walked around like a young Shelley”

– Harry Weber, who shared an apartment with Bobby Zimmerman and “Spider” John Koerner

When Bobby Zimmerman started to become Bob Dylan, he was a high school greaser with slicked hair, a leather jacket and he loved riding through Hibbing on his motorcycle, usually with his girlfriend, Echo Helstrom, riding behind him. He had dreams of being a rock star like his hero Little Richard. In his high school yearbook, he says he dreamed of joining Little Richard’s band. He started visiting Minneapolis and the Ten O’Clock Scholar regularly in the fall of 1958. He visited so often that Echo broke up with him around the same time.

At the beginning of 1959, Zimmerman was in a band called the Rockets with Monte Edwardson. He may have also been in a band called The Satin Tones. He saw Buddy Holly live at the Armory in Duluth on January 31 – four days before Holly’s death in a plane crash.

In June of 1959, according to Bobby Vee, Bobby Zimmerman was working as a busboy at the Red Apple Cafe in Fargo when he joined Vee’s band The Shadows as a pianist. He insisted on being called Elston Gunn. He left after Vee decided he didn’t need a pianist, though other accounts claim Vee kicked him out because he could only play in one key.

University Avenue

“If you try to figure out anyone like Bob you will only discover that there is more and more that you simply can’t figure out”
– Hugh Brown, a friend of Bob Dylan and a regular at the Scholar

That September, Zimmerman moved to Minneapolis. Thanks to a cousin of his, he was able to move into the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity house, at the time not far from where University Avenue crosses 35W. Back then 35 was Highway 61, The Blues Highway, which extended from Duluth all the way to New Orleans. Bobby took a few classes in the liberal arts program at the U of M, but his real education would be in his neighborhood, Dinkytown, which is just off campus.

He started playing at the Scholar, which used to sit on the corner of 14th Avenue and 3rd Street, in October along with “Spider” John Koerner, the first guy he met there. He’d asked Jim Lee, the owner, if he could play and that he wanted to be a folk singer. Lee asked him his name and he replied “Bob Dylan”. The usual method of payment at the Scholar was five dollars or a meal. Bob would play there regularly until May 1960, when he asked for a raise. After that, he would play at the Purple Onion Pizza Parlor and the Bastille.

The Purple Onion was in St. Paul, at the corner of Snelling and University. The Bastille was an old house near the corner of Oak and Washington in Minneapolis, fixed up by its owners Harvey Abrams and Bob Brull as a folk club.

Bob Spitz writes in his biography of Bob that to make it as a rock star in those days, you needed original material, a face and a band. But as a folk singer, you didn’t need any of those things.

Bobby stayed in Minneapolis over the Christmas vacation pining for Judy Rubin, a girl he first met at Camp Herzl, a Jewish camp in Wisconsin that he attended as a kid. She told him she wanted to stay friends, but refused his advances. Bobby returned to Hibbing and told his friend John Bucklen that he was a folk singer now, and went on and on about the folk singer Odetta. When he heard her voice in a record shop, he had traded his electric guitar for an acoustic.

When he returned to Minneapolis in January, he left Sigma Alpha Mu and stopped using the name Zimmerman entirely. He moved into an artist loft ($30/month rent) above Gray’s Drugstore, on the corner of 14th Avenue and 4th Street (where the Loring Pasta Bar now sits – see image below).

Dylan's old apartment block
Dylan's Minnesota apartment loft

Around this time, he started hanging out with Gretel Hoffman, who continued his education in folk music. According to Spitz, Hoffman had just dropped out of Bennington College, a women’s college in Vermont (it’s now a co-ed liberal arts college). She had grown up with well-off parents who were communist sympathizers who sent her to an alternative high school. She listened to jazz, read eastern philosophy and was in to left-wing politics.

That March, the two of them attended a party in St. Paul where they met Dave Whitaker, who was an equally eccentric sort. He had tried joining the Merchant Marines in Paris and would later go to San Francisco and join the bohemian subculture there. Dylan and Whitaker became fast friends.

Bobby had been an avid reader in Hibbing (much of it detailed in his autobiography Chronicles), but he didn’t read much in Minneapolis. Whitaker was dismayed by this and gave him a copy of Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory. Bob devoured its contents, and was soon carrying it everywhere he went, stopping people on the street and reading passages from it to them.

In May of 1960, Bob made his first recording at the home of friend Karen Wallace in St. Paul. He played traditional songs, a few by Woody Guthrie and some country songs.

Late that month, Bob got word that Gretel and Dave had married on May 20. He was devastated. He had secretly been in love with Gretel and Dave was his best friend. He passed by Gretel on the street and he couldn’t look at her. “When you get a divorce, let me know,” he shouted back.

Bob then hitchhiked to Denver to make his start as a folk singer. He knew a girl whose floor he could sleep on. Robert Shelton in his book No Direction Home (which puts Bob going to Denver in 1959) says he heard from Monte Edwardson that Denver had a lively folk scene.


Bob had been told to look up Walt Conley if he ever went to Denver by an ex-girlfriend of his. Conley owned a club called The Satire, and was the opening act at the Exodus, where the folk crowd hung out. The star of the Exodus was a 20-year old classical pianist named Judy Collins, who had recently picked up a guitar and begun singing.

Two of the songs she sang when Bob saw her were ‘House of the Rising Sun’ and ‘A Maid of Constant Sorrow. Both of these songs ended up on his debut album. Around this time, Collins was approached by Elektra records, which released her first two albums, ‘A Maid of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’. Collins would become one of the best interpreters of Dylan’s songs, singing ‘Farewell’, ‘Tomorrow is a Long Time’, ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ on later releases.

Bob Dylan arrived at the Satire Club and asked if he could play a few songs. He ended up being the opening act for the Smothers Brothers, playing their first gig in Denver. Neither the brothers nor the audience liked Dylan’s performance. Tommy Smothers especially didn’t like Bob’s unkempt appearance or his raspy voice. Bob also played obscure songs when the crowd was expecting well-known traditional songs that they could sing along to.

Conley found him a gig playing piano at The Gilded Garter, a strip joint out in the gold-rush town of Central City. Collins had been playing there and the manager, Sophia St. John, wanted another folk singer.

The Gilded Garter was probably the worst place to be a folk singer. The crowd was loud and not at all interested in listening to music. Bob said in an interview that it was the worst place he ever played. Bob lasted a week before he returned to Denver. St. John called Conley telling him that Bob, her purse and $20 were missing. She was ready to call the cops, but Conley talked her out of it.

Conley wouldn’t let Bob stay at his house, though he was allowed at Conley’s house parties. Bob got a room at a Salvation Army hotel next to the Exodus. He made regular visits there and heard Leon Bibb, Judy Collins, Dave Hamil, Kevin Krown and blues guitarist Jesse Fuller. Bob was fascinated by Fuller and how he played both the guitar and harmonica at once, with a steel harmonica rack around his neck.

Bob left Denver after Conley and Hamil discovered some of Conley’s records were stolen. They confronted Bob at his hotel. With tears in his eyes, he pleaded he was innocent, but they found the records under his mattress. A similar incident would happen later with Jon Pankake, the editor of the Minneapolis folk ‘zine The Little Sandy Review. Conley asked him to leave, and Bob’s parents drove him back to Minneapolis, thinking that college would dispel his musical ambitions.

No Direction Home

Bob Dylan returned to Minneapolis in September, still intent on being a folk singer. He began playing the harmonica more and more in his shows, using a steel rack like Jesse Fuller had done. He met Ellen Baker, whose father Mike was the head of the Minneapolis Folk Society. He owned an extensive collection of records and other materials related to folk music. He owned many records from the Folkways label (now owned by the Smithsonian). Bob writes in Chronicles that he envisioned himself playing for Folkways and peppers references to it and its artists throughout the book. On one of those records was ‘These Brown Eyes’ by Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston, which Bob would play over and over again at his gigs. For the rest of his time in Minneapolis, Bob would regularly visit the Bakers.

Later that month, Bonnie Beecher recorded Bob, in a recording that’s been called the Minneapolis Party Tape. It was recorded at the home of Cleve Petterson, who donated it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 2005. Also on the recording are Cynthia Fincher, who played banjo at a few of Bob’s gigs at the Purple Onion, Bill Globus and Bonnie Beecher. Beecher would later record the Minnesota Hotel Tape when Bob returned to Minnesota briefly in 1961 and she is a possible inspiration (another candidate is Echo Helstrom) for ‘The Girl from North Country’.

In an interview with Playboy, Bob said he was turned on to folk music by listening to Odetta. In the fall of 1960, according to Clinton Heydlin, he met her and she convinced him he had real potential as a folk singer. In mid-December, he returned to Hibbing and told his parents he was going to New York.

His first stop along the way was Chicago, where he looked up Kevin Krown, who he had met back in Denver. He stayed a few weeks there, playing in coffee houses and student parties.

And at last, he arrived in New York on January 24, 1961. And the rest is pop music history.

Further Resources:


Matthew Barney 95

Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle

SUSPENSION [Cremaster]
SECRET [biology]
by Thyrza Nichols Goodeve

“…what others call form I experience as force” – Roland Barthes

Begin with iridescence and force. A force without form or home or convention, almost more like “a diagram without a will” (1) – suspended and hung. Send it at a line, ask it to organize a sport, watch it seek out – discover – form. And then you might begin to discover the medium Matthew Barney works from. Another word for potential, force is, after all, measured in its effect. Mutability is the hidden elixir here. Ever, ongoing, endless, metamorphosing mutability. If force is the substance of transformation; mutability is the secret of its success. Think of a squeeze; flesh responsive to the pressure. Think of a pass; player beholden to the ball. Think of a hydraulic jack pumped to its maximum pressure, held against vaseline-encrusted skin: danger, potential, eros, lyric. Think of a straight-jacketed Houdini suspended miles above, hanging from a moving plane. Think of the fall into the Isle of Man after a series of rituals and extended gracings of the floor. Tap. Friction. Hole. It is the restraint and tension that alters. Shape is only the end result of contact and suspension.

Reductive – not to mention unfashionable – as such a comparison is, biology can be likened to art. Biology and art take as their medium the manipulation and development of form; both depend upon the revelation and production of secrets as their modus operandi. Fiddling about in the sticky fascia separating and connecting the familiar and unfamiliar, biology and art, share the affinity for tackling what is most uncanny in life. Think of the genesis of species crafted out of nature’s own highly stylized and bizarre laws to produce visionary beings no one could predict; species transformations which tax the mind. In this sense, “nature” is just another way to name the sheer madness of biological generation.

But where science is hell-bent on denuding and taxonomizing precisely what is most strange and inexplicable in nature, one saving grace of art, I hope, is its desire to thrash and journey into the corridors of as yet unperceived realms. So imagine when the artist becomes biologist, unlocking the secrets of DNA sequences of which s/he is the very progenitor. Matthew Barney’s meticulously crafted bio-aesthetic projects are accreted from just such an impulse.

Like the pearl. Try to shave off a slice and put it under a microscope. You’ll only find layers formed in earlier pieces; genetic mutations from piece to piece. Narrative is biology here – physical transformation. Watch as a wrestling mat becomes a piece of flesh; a field dressing shifts from bandage to vaseline-field plugging orifices, to ubiquitous Barney icon (2) or watch as athletic equipment is turned into a seeping, dripping creature – denuded of function – reborn as suggestive organism.

A nacreous concretion formed within the shell of various bivalve mollusks around some foreign body (e.g. a grain of sand) composed of filmy layers of carbonate of lime interstratified with animal membrane; it is of a hard smooth texture, of globular, pear-shaped, oval, or irregular form, and of various colors, unsually white or bluish grey; often having a beautiful lustre, and hence highly prized as a gem; formerly also used in medicine. (3)

Sometime after my first viewing of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 4, I dreamt I was born inside a pearl held in the fingertips of one of the Loughton Candidate’s whimsical, caring, yellow-taffeta’d Faeries. It was a dream of sensation not plot. There I was, squeezed into some dream condensation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who spliced with – I only realized while writing this article – a 1991 Artforum cover featuring Barney’s work. But the focus of the dream was the textured substance of the pearl’s skin separating me from the world. Although I was made from the friction of a piece of sand housing inside a perfect form – tiny, at the whim of a Faerie, in danger of being dropped, last seen drifting off a yellow exercise mat, perhaps, into the sea – it was the material of the pearl’s wall that I remembered. As well as the feeling that the “I” in the dream was in the process of gestating into something-elsehood formed by the bio-aesthetic laws of the guiding Faerie’s – not conventional biology’s – rules.

The mollusk’s defensive formation around a foreign body, a pearl – like a secret – is a secretion of vulnerable, interior form hardened, layer by layer, over time. Once upon a time the secret was a fragile but potent cultural entity. Think of its formative presence in the nineteenth century in everything from psychoanalysis, detective fiction, archeology to Houdini. To uncover a secret – Tutankhamen’s tomb, the hysteric’s repressed conflict, Dupin’s purloined letter – suggested that one had found a key to unlock labyrinthine histories, confusions, lost cultures, narrative mysteries. The secret was sought after, courted, cherished, precisely because it was an agent of magic and revelation. Today the secret is chipped and tarnished, lacking in intelligence and vitality, reduced from pearl of wisdom to tabloid-encrusted excretion.

… Until Matthew Barney showed up in 1991 presenting an installation of video-taped memories of his secret trek across a gallery space (Mile High Threshold: Flight with the Anal Sadistic Warrior) or his two-hour loop for The Jim Otto Suite (1992). A gallery space heaving with the residue of effort. A ghost space – a world of creatures and objects and forms hunting, haunting. These are pieces not just about physical, sexual, and material force but which, in their video-taped state, include the shuddering suspense of witnessing secret rituals. Removed from public performance (which would make them just acts of spectacle and bravado), shelled instead inside the video-view, they are strenuous, touching, luminous choreographies of private acts of danger, eros, thrill, epistemophilic exploration, and sheer lyrical strain.

To revive the charged thrill of the secret as sensuous, public display – what Barney’s work shares with his mentor Houdini – in these times in which we live, is no mean feat. I mean, would Houdini have caused such a stir today? Imagine:

In Chicago Houdini escaped from a huge sealed envelope without breaking the paper. He released himself from the interior of a giant football laced with metal links and fastened with padlocks in Philadelphia. In Boston he penetrated the chained carcass of an embalmed “sea-monster” and left no clue to his method. (4)

Maybe, but I sense he’d need something else: the metabolizing secret – secretion – suspension into which Matthew Barney’s world asks us to escape.


  1. Matthew Barney in conversation, March 1995.
  2. Like the hydraulic jack, or Loughton Ram of Cremaster 4 with descending and ascending horns, his interest in such forms is the simultaneity of open and closed / descending and ascending fields.
  3. Definition of “pearl”, Oxford English Dictionary.
  4. Christopher Milbourne, Houdini: The Untold Story (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1969), p.4.

This essay originally appeared in Parkett 45 (1996). Many thanks to Thyrza Nichols Goodeve for permission to republish.

Correspondence: The European Peripheral

A Letter from Malmö by Maria Tonini

Some time ago, on a cold Saturday evening, a friend suggested to go and see Momus, the Scottish singer and provocateur, who was holding a gig in the tiny basement room of a popular bar. The room was really, really small, and I had not heard about the gig anywhere. My friend explained that Momus called the series of dates “The peripheral tour of Europe”. Gig apart (which was good, hilarious at times, and cosy to the point of thinking someone had invaded your living room with speakers, a performer dressed like a pirate, and a hundred people with a beer in their hand), the word ‘peripheral’ stuck to my mind. It can be said that southern Sweden is the periphery of Europe. Or can it? When I moved here, almost three years ago, I remember having similar thoughts: I came from London, and suddenly I found myself in a place where nothing happened. Or so it felt at the time. Now and then I still have pangs of nostalgia for the hectic pace and the resolute sleaze of the Big Smoke, but overall I changed my mind. To Londoners or New Yorkers, Malmö will feel like a peripheral suburb (300.000 inhabitants, more or less like the borough of Lambeth). To us, living here, Malmö is the centre of action – with the added benefit of having Copenhagen only 30 minutes away: a whole different country, a whole different culture across the bridge.

Facts and statistics illuminate an interesting reality: Malmö, beside being the capital of Skåne (the southernmost region of Sweden), is increasingly associated with what goes under the name of ‘Öresund Region’, an area comprising the Western coast of south Sweden and the eastern coast of Denmark. The Öresund Region can be covered in half a day by train, from Swedish harbour city Helsinborg to Danish Elsinore (the Hamlet castle is a gem). According to the latest statistics, the Öresund region has 3.7million inhabitants, mostly concentrated in Copenhagen and Malmö but distributed all along the coasts; what makes it in a way unique is the dynamic interaction between the two countries and its towns, so that living in the Öresund region feels pleasantly cosmopolitan – a region that doesn’t belong to either country, a transnational entity.

In globalised times – I swear I didn’t want to use the ‘G word’: feel free to substitute it in your mind with something less painfully overused – I feel it is slightly odd that it’s still the same old cities dictating the agenda of cool, plus some gigantic newcomers from China. As Saskia Sassen memorably argued, global flows tend to concentrate in particular nodes around the world, and a city becomes ‘global’ if and when it can sport something unique in the global flow of capitals – economic, cultural, political. So Zurich would be central on the global map of finance, Antwerp on the diamond map.

What map would see Malmö as a central node?

Perhaps dwarfed by the proximity to the Danish capital, a proximity that can never evolve into a real ‘sisterhood’ of cities despite some urban planners’ efforts, the third city in Sweden (after Stockholm and Gothenburg) doesn’t seem to have a place in the unwritten list of ‘cool’ European cities. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us, since even a cultural milestone like Paris seems to have somehow lost its shine.

So why Malmö? Why does it matter? Why should you read what’s going on here? Why should you care?

Because there is a sense of true discovery in living in a Swedish city that isn’t even the capital of this already peripheral country (roughly as large as California but with barely ten million people, and, well, a slightly different climate). There is a sense of actually, really, authentically having moved somewhere else, not at all to a global node, not at all to an expat haven (like many Asian cities). A place where English is widely spoken for the benefit of us all, but Swedish is what you need if you want to have a purpose. Where despite the penetration of western/American/global trends, media and popular culture, there are specificities that are strictly local, and there lies their preciousness.

But I’m being unfair when I praise the local-ness of Malmö: with 174 different nationalities living in the same municipality, this city is a microcosm in its own way. Danish people can be heard getting in and out of shops on a Saturday afternoon, Lebanese shopkeepers switch smoothly between Arabic and Swedish as you pack your groceries, the Brits can be found in one of the city’s pubs (it’s true – not a journalistic topos), and I thank my boxing trainer for being from Serbia, as his Swedish is crystal clear to me.

Many people will know, or think they know, what it feels to live in Williamsburg compared to the East Village: we get it, it’s on the news, in lifestyle magazines, regularly listed as a trendsetting location. No one will get a sense of what it is like to live in Möllevånstorget as compared to Limhamn. To the outsider these are long names with strange vowels and little else, and they remain as such unless one is willing to dive into the local cultures, the habits, the relevant issues. It isn’t folklore, or quasi-anthropological curiosity: to live here one has to ‘go native’, but the traditional distinctions between self and other are complicated by the fact that this is a strikingly modern society, one that reminds you of your own European homeland and than hits you with unbelievable oddities.

The sense of living ‘elsewhere’ puts the foreigners like me before several choices, yet none of them feels constraining: Malmö is not fully Sweden, it is a man-sized combination of influences, traffics, languages and conflicts. Its hybrid identity allows for diverse experiences and a distinctive, lively cultural and social life. I hope I will be able to transfer my sense of pleasant displacement over to you, from time to time.

Gender: Sexual Minorities In India: A Political Issue

A report on the changing nature of sexuality in India by Maria Tonini

The status of sexual minorities in today’s India is in a state of transition after homosexual sex was decriminalised in 2009. While the legal judgment can be framed as a move towards a more inclusive and secular society where religious beliefs against homosexuality cannot prevail over human rights, sexuality continues to be a controversial issue, stirring the political and cultural agendas. Through a brief excursus of the legal battle to decriminalise homosexuality in India, the opposition from various political and religious entities, and the persistent discrimination and violence suffered by gay citizens, I would like to open up a discussion around concepts like democracy, globalisation, secularism and modernity. The complexity of the Indian socio-political landscape is a good case in point to show how such concepts are far from clear-cut.

On July 2nd, 2009, the Delhi High Court pronounced a ‘reading down’ of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, effectively decriminalising consensual homosexual sex between adults. After a eight-year-long legal battle initiated by NAZ Foundation India, an organisation working with HIV-positive people, homosexual sex ceased to be a punishable crime. Section 377 (as other parts of the Indian Penal Code) had been introduced in 1860 by Lord Macaulay, at the time of the British colonial domination of India. I arrived to Delhi only days after the judgment, and witnessed a sustained media attention for the following weeks. All the major national newspapers reported the news on the first page. The judgment was called “historical” and “a great, albeit belated, step towards globalisation”, “a landmark judgment”, “sexuality equality”. However, the same day protests started to mount against the legal judgment from various sources. A member of a centrist political party urged the government to appeal to the Supreme Court of India, as the ruling on homosexuality would sadden the old people of India and cause the country’s culture to “crumble”. Lalu Prasad Yadav, a widely-known political figure, said, “Yes, homosexuality is a crime… Such obscene acts should not be allowed in our country. The society is adversely affected”.

Religious leaders from Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities unanimously expressed their discontent with the ruling (a rare example of inter-religious solidarity) , citing the ‘unnaturalness’ of gay sex and some advancing the hypothesis that such a decision would in fact help the spread of AIDS. Such oppositions to the Court decision translated in eight counter-petitions filed to the Supreme Court over a period of four months.

The debate around secularism in India was sparked, in recent times, by the death of thousands of people in Gujarat in 2002, a planned massacre supported by the rightwing political party BJP. Such an event, the looting and ferocious murders of thousands of Muslim citizens, was in many respects unprecedented in its scale and organisation, so much so that it has been called “genocide”. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims reached a new high with the Gujarat episode, and called for a reflection on the state of democracy and secularism in India.

Since the end of British colonial power, India had to forge a viable, strong national identity in the struggle for independence. Tensions between different religious groups, political ideals and castes emerged already during Gandhi’s time. Despite Nehru’s secular stance, which inspired the political and social policy of modernisation in India for decades after Independence, conflicts within the management of the republic emerged, particularly with regards to religious and ethnic minorities. India, as an independent nation, relied on the centrality of a strong state in administering national and state policies and on a ‘secular’ constitution.

The configuration of the meaning of secularism in the Indian context does not rely simply on the division and independence of the state vis á vis religion; rather, the dialectics of the relationship between the state and its citizens is complicated by other intersecting factors. If we think of the Gujarat massacre as a horrid example of the ‘clash of religions’, it is obvious that religion refers less to matters of faith and belief than to ideas of identity and political culture. Religion is changing, or rather, penetrating various dimensions of human experience. Is the separation between state and church, seen as the pillar of secularism, enough to guarantee social and civic pluralism, respect for human rights, and democracy? The case of India offers interesting points for reflection on the meaning of secularism and its relation to democracy and rights, in particular with respect to minorities.

Anthropologist Peter van de Veer remarked that any democracy, albeit modern, is always founded on the unequal power that the majority has over minorities and that, as such, from the point of view of a given minority “there is not much reason to fear a religious majority more than a secular one” and that the connection between secularism, pluralism and tolerance is one borne out of a specifically European enlightenment tradition. Given that the power of the majority will always imply that the minorities will have to comply with decisions they might not agree with, how is this power deployed by a secular state? In India the state was a strong presence particularly in the first decades after Independence; it exercised direct control over the country’s economy and it was aided by the political continuity afforded by a powerful governmental coalition. The fact that the state had a strong impact on development policies and the economy does not mean that it could guarantee peaceful coexistence among the various ethnic, religious and political groups of Indian society; one only has to think of the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, or the insurgent Maoist guerrilla in the central state of Chhattisgarh, to get a sense of the struggles the state has to face in order to keep the country unified (if not united). Issues of sexuality, and especially of queer sexualities, don’t seem to be directly related to the political life of a country; at most, they remain at the margins of the political agenda. Yet in the last two decades Indian politics devoted quite some time and effort toward the management of sex.

In the last two decades, India has witnessed a renaissance of the Hindutva ideology; the configuration of Muslims as enemies of the nation found its most destructive outcome in the destruction of the Babri Masjid (a mosque) in 1992, and ten years later in the above mentioned state-backed extermination of Muslims in Gujarat. Hatred based on supposedly religious foundations coexists, in the more recent Hindutva programmes, with campaigns to eradicate Western influences from India. The socio-cultural changes brought about by globalisation and the liberalisation of economy in 1991-1992 are seen as morally corrupting and dangerous for the imagined Hindu identity of India. It must be noted, however, that it was the BJP (the mainstream rightwing political coalition) who launched the now infamous ‘India Shining’ campaign before the 2004 elections; after running the country for the previous five years, the BJP sought to present a new image of India as a modern country, focused on progress, unprecedented growth and global aspirations: from the point of view of economy and foreign investments, interaction with the West was more than welcome. It should not be surprising that the Hindutva ideologues chose to concentrate instead on issues of sexuality and morality as the preferred loci where corrupting influences would spread.

With regards to sexuality, it must be said that ideas of properness and respectability had begun to circulate and be debated already during colonial times. The origins of discourses around the sexuality of Indian women can be traced back to the nationalist project of casting a radically different model of femininity and sexuality from that of the European invader; values such as chastity, wifehood, motherhood, purity and domesticity came to symbolise a form of resistance to the colonial rulers, and women cast as the ideal bearers of such values. If, for some, the Indian nation is imagined partly through powerful symbolic references to sexuality, one can easily see how the emergence of queer subjects and other sexual subalterns (like the sex worker) asserting the right to express their sexuality is not only a question of sex, but it becomes cultural and political. It seems as if sexuality – and in particular non-normative sexuality – easily becomes one of the most important sites where articulations of identity and rights, but also violence and abuse are experienced; sexuality is also one of the main sites where individual subjectification meets power discourses; where secular guaranteed rights do not always supersede religious beliefs; the site where, in fact, the oppositional model that sees secularism as a synonymous for individual rights and liberties and religion as a static, repressive ideology is an imperfect one.

I would like to focus here on two inter-related cases where Hindu-right supporters advanced their protest against what they saw as expressions of moral decadence that came from the West: the spread of HIV/AIDS in relation to homosexual sex, and the screening of the movie Fire by Deepa Mehta. Both events received extensive coverage both in mainstream media and in academic discussions on India’s democratic future in the face of religious and political extremism.

Many organisations working on sexual health issues started to operate in India at the time when the AIDS epidemic was spreading in the country. One of them was the NAZ Foundation Trust, who also initiated the petition against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. In 2001, the Lucknow offices of NAZ and Bharosa (another sexual health organisation) were raided by the police and their workers arrested; NAZ and Bharosa worked primarily with men who have sex with men by visiting the parks and other public places where such practices were widespread and educating people on the risk of infection. The police confiscated educational material on safe sex and condom use claiming that the organisation were distributing obscene material and encouraging sex against the order of nature, and were hence able to use Section 377 to prosecute the NGO workers. A few years before this incident, medical teams visiting the Tihar Jail in New Delhi had found several cases of HIV infection due to widespread sodomy among male inmates, and had recommended the provision of condoms; the prison authorities refused on the grounds that such an initiative would further encourage criminal sex practices and would implicitly admit the existence of homosexual sex in prisons. Such extreme episodes reflect an attitude that circulated among right-wing politicians such as Bal Thackeray (leader of the rightwing group called Shiv Sena), who claimed that AIDS was a Western disease imported into India through decadent Western practices, and that foreign NGOs were only paid to produce ad hoc statistics about increased sexual activity in India in order to discredit the country.

The release of the feature film Fire by female director Deepa Mehta in the autumn of 1998 caused violent reactions in several Indian cities. Women activists from the Shiv Sena demanded that the film be banned in Maharashtra as it was morally offensive. Hundreds of people vandalised and forced cinema theatres to close both in Mumbai, where the protest had originated, and in other cities such as Delhi, Pune, Surat. The incidents were followed by extensive media attention and politicians’ statements regarding the film. Fire is the story of two women, unhappily married to lower-middle class Hindu men, and their romantic homosexual relationship as it develops among the daily chores and the rituals of a typical north Indian extended family. The film gathered positive criticism abroad and enjoyed a certain success in India too, although it doesn’t belong to mainstream Hindi cinema (also known as Bollywood). The relationship between the two wives develops into a lesbian one, and the film contains a couple of love scenes that are fairly unusual in popular Indian cinema. Predictably, Shiv Sena’s chief Bal Thackeray stated that the lesbianism portrayed in the movie was a phenomenon imported with globalisation, alien and extremely dangerous for the social fabric of India. In another interview, Thackeray admitted that, had the film focused on Muslim women, he would have found it acceptable: in both cases, homosexuality is configured as something alien and foreign, whether it comes from the decadent West of from the ‘internal’ Muslim enemy.

The controversy surrounding Fire was part of a concerted attack by the Hindu Right on films, art, and images: as visual culture spread in the 1990s as a result of the diffusion of foreign media and the beginning of the computer age, the Hindu Right used cultural production to wage their war against immorality. It is interesting to note that by casting homosexuality as foreign, what the Hindu Right did was to enforce an idea of hetero-normativity as a nationalistic, anti-colonial move. It was in this political and cultural climate that activists and NGOs started their battle to repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code; it took eight years, and during this time the terms of the debate have shifted considerably. The first petition against 377 focused on health concerns, claiming that section 377 prevented organisations from carrying out important HIV/AIDS prevention work; the government of India dismissed it, claiming that repealing it would provide license to criminal and immoral behaviour and that criminal law must reflect public morality. In 2009, after other organisations joined in signing the petition against section 377, the High Court judgment, invoking inclusion and non-discrimination as basic Indian values, seemed to testify to a truly historic ideological change.

Now that the legal battle has been won, and the Court expressed a progressive message, one would expect a supportive reaction from the government of India. And yet, after the ruling passed and the counter-petitions were filed, it was reported that the central government (centre-left Indian National Congress) still had not taken a clear stand on the issue. Would it support the High Court or the political/religious homophobia? Interrogated on the matter, majority politicians claimed that they needed more time and before making any official statement they wanted to ‘access the public mood’ on such a sensitive issue. One might argue that, even though Hindutva ideologues were not in the picture any longer, the state failed to position itself in favour of the decriminalisation. As for ‘the public mood’, and aside from the openly hostile views of religious leaders, the comments expressed by readers on the main newspaper websites show how divisive the issue of homosexuality still is. While some readers welcome the change as an example of democracy and secularism, others argue that the court’s decision does not reflect the views of the majority of people. A brief sample from the Times of India website:

Its all an example of Democracy , Untill and unless if someone is not making harm to others , it can’t be framed as Illegal.People have full right to live in their own way in a democratic and secular country atleast.Its all a matter of perception for society.(D.R. from Hyderabad)

I do not agree with the judges decision to legalise homosexuality. If the media reports on the growing number of homosexuals/ lesbians, then why cant the media see the majority of the society is against this decision. Does the majority need to take a procession to voice their protest? Very soon we will have these guys holding hands and walking on the streets, same sex marriages and even worse our country will have increase in HIV cases. Sodomy cases will increase. Surely, the HC judges decision is demeaning (Or demonising) our society. Hope better sense prevails or else our country will go to ruin. (C. from Mumbai)

This is one of the biggest progrssive action taken up by India in this 21st century. Our country is the largest democracy and we must not deny the rights of the sexual minorities. (N. from Delhi)

india is gone (M. from Delhi)

On April 7th, 2010, Professor Srinivas Ramachandra Siras, a retiring teacher at the Aligarh Muslim University, was found dead in his residence. Although suicide seemed most likely, the official cause of death was never declared. Two months earlier, Siras was fired after a videotape surfaced of him having sex with another man in his apartment. As homosexuality is not a criminal act anymore in India, professor Siras appealed to the court in Aligarh and was given his job back, but as his sexual orientation was a publicly know fact, he experienced harassment and marginalization. Whether he killed himself out of shame over being caught on video or because of the humiliation and discrimination he suffered afterwards is uncertain. His sexual partner, a rickshaw puller, tried to set himself on fire in July, after being not only shamed but also repeatedly beaten by the police, who initially suspected him of the death of Siras.

I think the case of professor Siras is emblematic. Where is the progressive, democratic and inclusive society? What was the use for Siras to appeal to the institution of the Court, thus gaining his right to work back, only to be blackmailed and marginalised?

In relation to the marginalization and abuse that gay citizens such as professor Siras continue to experience despite formal justice, what can be said about democracy, secularism and modernity? Should we be inclined to think that all the people who maligned Siras until his death were religious extremists? Or, like some could argue, that India as a society is perhaps not ready to accept sexual diversity – as if we in the West were? What interests are being protected by allowing discrimination and violence against sexual minorities?

Societal attitudes are not easily formalised, and a legal pronouncement is clearly not enough to change them. This is nothing new. What I find problematic when discussing social developments in non-Western societies is that common categories and concepts don’t seem to work too well, if taken for granted. I feel uncomfortable in using the words ‘democracy’, ‘modernity’, ‘justice’, ‘secular state’ – the dramatic events unfolding in India remind me how these noble concepts are never stable, never achieved once and for all. Someone is always excluded, left out, for the benefit of the majority.

When the Hindu Right decides to target movies and other cultural products in order to advance its repressive ideas, it does so precisely because popular culture is the ideal terrain to plant the seeds of intolerance and extremism; when mainstream Indian media enthusiastically reports a historic change for homosexuals in India, it nonetheless makes sure to clarify that gays will not be able to marry, a welcome tranquilliser for the public who might worry that the most important social institution may be at risk. Even though sexuality (as well as religious belief) belongs to the domain of the private in any democratic and secular society, one can see how some sexualities don’t seem to fit too well into the social fabric; they may be perceived as threatening, disruptive, polluting. Hence, it is important that their existence, even when sanctioned by the law, is kept away from the eyes of the ‘silent majority’: some sexualities are more private than others as the values they convey are not acceptable. Contrary to what the majority of commentators said on the eve of the decriminalisation of Section 377, in the case of professor Siras the legal change did not have a positive impact on the visibility of homosexuality or the right to positively affirm his sexual orientation. On the contrary, his ‘outing’ took the form of a scandal and marked the beginning of prolonged harassment that had tragic consequences. That homosexuals are citizens enjoying equal rights within an inclusive society was clearly not enough to save Siras’s life. Perhaps in mainstream debates on democracy and secularism the concept of equality has been overdetermined at the expense of the concept of difference. Acts of abuse, discrimination and violence such as the one I reported compel us reflect upon the meaning of equality and difference. I offered the example of India because the very recent events I presented offer, in their dramatic and extreme developments, a picture (even if fragmented and incomplete) of the relation between state and individual encompassing variations which go beyond the traditional Western dualistic model. Variations that, if taken into consideration, could help us question our definitions of secularism, modernity and democracy.

Giving and Taking: Arts Funding and Philanthropy

In the wake of this month’s funding announcements by the Arts Council of England, Joseph Spencer offer an American perspective on the philanthropic model for the arts

As the arts in Britain undergo significant changes to their funding structures, debates are sparking up as to alternatives that could save the hundreds of galleries, orchestras, theater companies, music academies, and dance theatres that rely on the government, at least in part, for their funding. With the recent enforced cuts of up to 15% the head of the Arts Council England (ACE), Liz Forgan has been expressing her regrets in the press. The ACE is the decision maker when it comes to who receives, or does not receive continued or new funding from the British Government. In several articles Mrs Forgan has been quoted as stating how difficult the decisions have been.

One of the decisions that has made some art and culture aficionados in London and the surrounding areas ripe with ire, is the now common practice of the ACE that instead of reducing all participating organizations’ budget by 15% according to the originally proposed method, they have controversially enacted selective grant endowments that pit arts organizations in a battle for funding in order to survive. The process smacks of entitlement and favoritism with artists, institutions and supporters alike. Although there are no blatant examples to be held up at this time, the system through which one would apply for entitlements and funding seems an easily corruptible one. While the procedure used to select those companies, orchestras, groups and individuals is not inherently biased, it is thought by many that special consideration will be given to those that could be favored by the Council.

According to Art Council England’s disclosures they have received 1,350 applications to date, worth close to £1.5 billion (GBP) or ($2.449 billion USD) with a budget of £950 million (GBP) the Arts Council England has had to reject or alter funding, and in some cases the effect has been dramatic. Poetry Book Society (PBS) has responded harshly. They have been subject to a complete withdrawal of all funding by the Council. Being one of the most prestigious and respected poetry societies in the world, they have enjoyed a steady funding source for decades. However, with the already strained financial situation in Britain, the British Government by way of British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt, and the ACE decided to relinquish all monetary support. This move lends credence to the idea that selective funding attrition, rather than an across the board reduction of 10% to 15% in funds, is not only biased and unfair but culturally destructive. The result of which is the loss of integral parts of the social and cultural landscape in Britain.

In America the arts are primarily supported through philanthropic endowments. There are some funding parameters that are defined through government subsidies such as the Public Broadcasting Networks. However, they are jointly funded through viewer contributions. One specific source for raising capital is the annual pledge drives every year in which businesses that are in the region of a designated Public Broadcasting Station, donate discounted service packages, and/or product bundles that callers to the pledge drive can ‘bid’ on incrementally so as to get maximum returns for the station holding the drive.

Kari Robertson is the President of North Country Arts Council (NCAC) an American education and advocacy non-profit organization encompassing music, theatre, dance, literary arts, visual arts, and crafts. When asked what advantages, if any, are there to a philanthropic funding structure as opposed to a state, Mrs Robertson responded, “One advantage that has been repeatedly expressed to me in conversations with many members of our art community is the fact that we do not have the tight regulatory policies of state sponsored art programs, such as those in some Asian countries”.

In order to justify expenditures, organizations that manage financial aspects for the arts – acquiring a majority of their funding from government grants or endowments – must keep detailed and intricate files accounting for each and every transaction. Often these files must be arranged in triplicate form with only upper management signatures allowed as authorization. This often creates a situation where artists are hindered in their creative process. It can be the case that they are restricted to certain expenses which deprives them of needed materials. It can also be the case that managerial staff and artistic members have very different priorities when concerning what is vital and what is not.

Culturally speaking, the more free and unfettered an artist is, be it in dance, theater, music or literary, generally the better the outcome for observer and performer. This is sometimes made more difficult when the artist is bound by regulation or policy.

According to Mrs Robertson, another advantage to the philanthropic model is that agencies giving financial support to the arts often have a limited view of what is art and an expanded view of what is considered illicit. Nude photography is considered quite tame in today’s artistic landscape. However, if an artist decides that his expression of what art involves or entails anything to do with a perceived desecration of religious text, this is often seen as not in line with what the government deems as artistic. Even with the supposed separation of church and state in America, funding for organizations that advocate such acts often see their financial attributions vanish quite quickly.

It can be concluded that the philanthropic model of financial support for the arts does allow for a much freer form of expression. This does little in the gap between government funding and obtaining economic support from individuals or private organizations. In the coming months it would be fiscally sound for those seeking to continue or newly acquire private financial means to support their artistic organizations, to begin the ever continuous process of courting investors in the arts.

Even with Jeremy Hunt stating that cuts are only affecting ‘Front Line’ arts organizations, with the demise of funding for such prominent institutions such as the Poetry Book Society and the Northcott Theatre Exeter, it would behoove all arts organizations to incorporate a greater amount of time and energy into soliciting philanthropic means of financial support.

There is much to be said for the application of cultural astuteness. Especially in the economic climate that is facing Britain today. It may be one day very soon that the very thing that put the arts at risk may be exactly what society will be looking to as a comfort when engaging the masses.

Further Reading:
Arts Council England website
Philanthropy and the Arts UK
Poetry Book Society (PBS)
North Country Arts Council (NCAC)
Northcott Theatre Exeter
I Value The Arts website

Curation of Thought: James Polchin, Writing In Public and the Mind’s Reflection

Writing In Public is a website dedicated to the art of the essay. Chris Wood interviews its editor about the thought behind the word

“I look for writing that is well written, where the writer has a love of language and this love shows in the sentences and paragraphs and overall movement of the essay.”

James Polchin teaches writing at New York University and is the editor and driving force behind Writing In Public, a website dedicated to the art of the essay. It features a disparate variety of work, linked by the fact that each explores the essay form. “I’m looking for good writing, for new voices, for intriguing ideas. And I’m looking for a diversity of insights and experiences from places around the world. It is, I believe, the first such site to focus on independent publications in a global context. I also hope to promote the extraordinary work of editors and writers who make such publications possible in an age when big media companies dominate the conversation.”

It is certainly true that the large media corporations control discourse as far across the board as possible, having little interest in artistry or purity of form. Questions like, ‘How can the essay form help us to think?’ aren’t covered by News International. Polchin considers matters such as how the essay shapes the subject. I ask him how the style of writing can add to the basic information: “I just recently read the fascinating book How to Live; Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. It’s partly a biography of Michel Montaigne and partly a reflection on the vast number of essays he composed in the 16th century, after having retired from public life in Bordeaux, France. Bakewell’s book will make you want to read all of Montaigne’s essays. Montaigne began writing his essays (“essayer” means “to try” in French), at a time of great war and social unrest in France. The Calvinists were attacking the Catholics, the Catholics were attacking the Calvinists, and the monarchy in Paris was trying to quell these unrests with harsh and bloody reprisals. I find it fascinating that it was within this historical context that the essay form was born, or at least the reflective, meditative, personal essay that Montaigne wrote and that anchors the genre.

“The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues. I don’t think of it as only about personal experiences. Writers like James Baldwin or Joan Didion or Jamaica Kincaid or Edwidge Danticat have delved into social conflicts and concerns, but always with an emphasis on their individual, reflective thinking. And this is what the essay gives us that no other form can: the mind of a writer, that meanders in thought, that considers the complexities of experience and offers reflective thinking that is hard to find today. The essay, in my mind, counters an increasing focus simply on one’s opinions and arguments, constructed in short bits of information, presented in reductive ways. The essay holds in it an intriguing mix of personal voice, experience, and universal concerns. It is not simply solipsistic, nor is it an academic argument on the problems of the world, but rather, the more interesting essays explore experiences in the world through a reflective mind. The essay can engage with politics, with contemporary issues.”

In Polchin’s teaching, he maintains an approach to the form that encourages his students to apply themselves to a more organic and flexible approach to the form of the essay itself. “I find that most students come with a very limited notion of an essay. Often they think that an essay is only that horrible five-paragraph thing that they are taught and tested on in school. I’m not sure where the five-paragraph form came from, but as I tell my students, that kind of essay makes it quite easy for the instructor to grade but teaches you very little about the history and complexity of the genre.”

The application of his theories is evidently integral to his instruction in the craft he so clearly adores. “I want them to think like an essayist, which means to develop a mind that questions and considers and draws connections that others might not see. And seeing is a good metaphor for the essay for it often helps us see in new ways.” The question of perception brings us to truth and accuracy of content. Polchin maintains that fact and fiction meet in the form of the essay, and that the two mix well: “Essays will often tell a story, or use techniques we now label as fiction. Some literary journals I look at don’t actually make distinctions between essays and short stories. But I’m not a believer in the notion that the distinction between fiction and non-fiction doesn’t matter much. Fiction asks something different from readers, and from writers. The journalist and essayist Lawrence Weschler has written that he couldn’t imagine writing fiction for the task of the essayist is to explore all the ‘knots’ and interrelationships that intrigue the writer, whereas the fiction writer’s task is to craft an empty space in the world and fill it with characters and hopes, furniture and psychologies — to recreate the world. The essayist takes the world as it is and tries to reflect on it, through their lived experiences, shaping insights beyond the commonplace ways of thinking. Narrative is every writer’s tool from fiction to essay to journalistic reportage.”

Polchin’s meticulous selection of material is clearly evident from the content of his site. Human curation was an early feature of the internet, when sites carefully chose the best material. Polchin is adamant that sites like Writing In Public have many advantages over the indifference of an algorithm. “It is difficult for an algorithm to find quality writing. It would in all likelihood go searching for a pattern of sentences or topics without any concern for the writer’s sensitivity to language. The pleasures of curating Writing in Public each week is that I consider each essay for its own merits and within the larger goals and mission of the site. I strive to open up a space on the internet where personal, reflective, intelligent essays can thrive and find new readers. I wouldn’t want to go so far as to say that it is kind of an art, but there is something creative about the process of selecting and organizing each week’s selections. There is more than content that I’m after, and more than just one kind of essay”.

With the rise of easy access to a platform and the volume of opinion pieces spilling out of its pores, some would argue the internet has damaged public debate. “I’m not so convinced that the internet is destroying our writing or thinking. I think that’s an easy critique. Writing can still be rich and interesting online if we allow it. I took a class in graduate school many years ago with a poet who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years earlier. He was exacting and demanding. I remember he would often critique the proper formatting of our essays. He once said, “The computer is a tool, like a hammer. We can’t let it determine our writing.” I think that is true with the internet as well — we can’t let it determine our essays. There are places for good writing and thoughtful, long meditative essays if we just allow for it.”

Every writer is unique and the cadences of their thoughts, and codifying of these, are necessarily idiosyncratic. How does expression and content blend to create a greater meaning than either content or style would separately? “I recently heard the Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston read from her new book, I Love a Broad Margin to My Life, which is a memoir in poems. She’s been writing for three decades almost, and has moved between novels and essays and poetry. If you pick up something she has written you know immediately it is her voice, her approach to the writing. She could write about a dirty taxi cab and it would have a lyrical quality. This is what a writer can do. But then, this is not to say that content isn’t important. It is, but I actually don’t know how to talk of content in the abstract. Content is what the writer of an essay makes, and often for essays content could be those quite simply moments of experience, moments that most people would forget almost as soon as the experience ends. But this is why we come to an essay, to see how the mind of the writer has shaped something in the world into content for an essay. Good essays make content where you hadn’t thought there was content. So in this sense, I guess I can’t really speak to the distinction between content and style, for in an essay, insights emerge from what the essayist chooses as content worthy, and how the essayist turns this content into a moment of reflective thinking.”

Further Reading:
About Writing in Public


Chris Wood is the author of Sherlock Holmes and the Flying Zombie Death Monkeys, available from Amazon.

Proposal for a Theme Park (or) The Continuing Relevance of the Frankfurt School

A call to arms (and mind) by Jonathan Reynolds

Theodor W. Adorno

A Theme Park; Consciousness; and the Reasonable Pessimism of the Frankfurt School
What certainly a consensus in social scientific circles has isolated and denominated as “capitalism” and “neoliberal democracy” has triumphed on the world stage. Many people seem to take this triumph as much for granted as they take the god, Jesus Christ, for granted, a god who, in contrast to the historically and textually understood Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, approves wholeheartedly of private property or even the limitless accumulation of personal wealth, and signs off on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; His televangelist representatives advocate the sniper assassination of foreign leaders. (1) If, generally speaking, we believe our polls and demographics statisticians, there are a great many such non-pacifist Christian capitalists today in America. It seems likely even that a large majority of all Americans – and big percentages, if not large majorities, of Europeans, perhaps, also – believe not necessarily what the American Christian right believes but certainly would admit to believing that the “West is best” – that History and the evolution of civilization is on the side of Europe and America for good and sound reasons: “free enterprise” and a “free” or “democratic” society in which opportunity for wealth and happiness is within reach, in theory, to anyone.

If one is not of that group or demographic it may be necessary to conclude either that something has happened to our general consciousness that permits pretty farfetched or extreme inconsistencies or internal contradictions or that some kind of general cognitive remove has occurred by which consciousness is about to collapse as an attribute that distinguishes us from beasts. It certainly no longer seems safe to assume that “consciousness” is a word or concept that continues to have a straightforward meaning with positive implications. Things are crazy, and even the middle classes are getting hit so hard they are beginning to think that things just do not add up for them any longer. Just maybe, anyway.

What doesn’t add up?: contradictions so stark that what social critics of all stripe have referred to as “the system” – the status quo – seems actually to be in jeopardy. In the Middle East, governments are falling or have fallen in countries long supporting the pax americana, for example, Egypt. In the U.S., public services are being cut so much that police departments are laying off half their cops. The “greatest health care system in the world” still is one only the richest people can afford. But the thick veil of patriotism in America, the jingoism that has always touted the “free market,” still drapes over Lloyd Blankfein’s Wall Street. Republicans won the 2010 mid-term elections. Consciousness still is a vicious battlefield. The stakes apparently are extremely high. The business profits of the undoubtedly Christian-staffed Fox News (2) – still staggeringly great – are testimony that what certain thinkers, including followers of Marx, and, in general, adherents to what is called continental philosophy (some names here you may or may not recognize: Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger) would call “bad-faith consciousness,” is still rampantly at large. (Now, consciousness, bad or not, is one thing. What seems worse is the imminent bad fate of our civilization and, from the standpoint of an ecology that humans prefer, of the planet, itself. (3) Hmm… Bad faith, bad fate: it almost rhymes… )

These lefties decrying “bad faith consciousness” condemn and bemoan this. Others wonder how anyone, Marxist or not, can speak of “Late Capitalism” – as Marxists do – as if capitalism were ending or as if there was an end in sight to it.

That there is a problem, it seems that it is a problem, therefore, that has to do with “consciousness”: what people think and believe to be true, or to be right … what they see as reality or what should be reality. Many Americans, probably many Brits and other Europeans, even those only very mildly left-thinking in their politics, for some time now have been muttering sadly and angrily about ignorance or a lack of awareness. A new and greater awareness and understanding is lacking, they say, and if such an expansion of consciousness miraculously were to come about, everything would be a hell of a lot better. It might even be possible that the world wouldn’t end so soon. (4) Speaking just for myself, though I suspect it may be true of others, as well, this is particularly of interest because of a sense in my normal waking life of beleaguerment, frustration with contradiction, and oppression, both material and ideological.

Quite interestingly, what until recently, and for what still is the case for fans of Fox News, has been the rosy picture of Western, “Judaeo-Christian” civilization, certainly from the Enlightenment on, is identified – square in the headlights – as problematic by what was semi-panned by an otherwise sympathetic philosopher named Paul Ricoeur, as “the school of suspicion.” This goes back to the playful fire of the eminences grises of philosophy many decades ago, speaking about, among others, a small group of intellectuals known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology.

These writers, whose frail existence flickered to life in pre-World War Two Germany, and who, improbably, despite their paler fire, ghostly fire, one might say, critiquing the much vaunted and completely taken-for-granted achievements of Western civilization, the received wisdom of the Enlightenment, itself, for example, survived (mostly) the Holocaust (most were Jews), survived the war, survived neglect by their brethren social thinkers, and now find themselves, posthumously (except for one, Jurgen Habermas), absolutely suitable for revisitation in 2011 for the insights their work has for us and our seemingly quite broken consciousness/es. (Informed readers of Spike undoubtedly will write in that they know all about the Frankfurt School, and always did: God bless these readers! I am only suggesting that the wider public – everybody! – should study these Prophets Ahead of Their Time – the Marxist thinkers of the Frankfurt School, about whom this present effort is concerned to expound.)

I am a Yankee. A gringo. So I can only speak for Americans.

If the problem is consciousness – or the lack of it – or it is “bad faith consciousness” vs good or “authentic” consciousness, consciousnesses struggling to become aware in order to act in better faith in these problematical times – this does seem to be particularly the problem in America, today, as Americans of different political stripe albeit for different reasons will assert. Accordingly, I suggest it would, indeed, be salutary to recall the works of social theory and critique produced by the Frankfurt School, a.k.a., the Frankfurt School of Social Research (here abbreviated “FS”), that was active from the 1930’s on, first at the University of Frankfurt, in Germany and, later, in diaspora, from various points around the globe. For consciousness, a knotty subject considered in many different arenas and aspects of life, is what the FS fundamentally addressed.

So what was the FS, and who were its charter members, these chartered thinkers?

By those who know a bit of the story already, the FS particularly is remembered – gone but not forgotten? – for a number of trenchant and highly original treatises of social and cultural theory and critique. (That they have been relegated to the past as anachronisms, even by the sensitive and sensibly engaged intelligentsia, is hammered home by the fact that a contributor to the famously reasonable, usually somewhat left-leaning, New York Review of Books, described recently in kindly if dismissive terms arguably the most important work by FS thinkers, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, as “that neo-Marxist cult classic…” (5) Cult or no, as the degree of importance of the topic rises, so does the difficulty of explication – the “unpacking” – increase. Accordingly, I am faced with the problem of how to reach or speak meaningfully to those for whom Marx, historical process, the dialectic, the materialist conception of history, and the book called, Capital, in general, continue to be not merely unpalatable in a fast-food world but entirely removed from the general consciousness out there now that is in significant fashion constructed and fed by the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

Who were they? Self-identified as Marxists one of the motivating factors for their work, collectively, was to ensure the survival of the work of Karl Marx. And one reason for the neglect of the FS’s thinkers and theorists was their allegiance to Marx. Remember McCarthyism? Even if you do, you may not be sufficiently susceptible to remembering that great gray ozone haze of the Cold War, when there was a nuclear arms race, and if “communists” were mentioned at all, it was commonly with incredulous dismissal, if not the most frightened abhorrence. For half a century in America, the great enemy, “communism,” largely defined the general consciousness. This was the case after the end of the Second World War, and it lasted at least through to the fall of the Berlin Wall, after which said Momentous Event every hitherto timorous official and born-again right-winger transformed himself into a strutting neocon who made the grand, wise, seigniorial assessment about the historically inevitable ascension of the United States to “sole superpower” and clear (revisionist) historical status as Nation Number One of the Twentieth Century, and, well, of All Time. (Cue Dick Cheney and his think-tanker acolytes and senior advisors at Halliburton.) Fox News fans – I keep referring to Fox News and those whom Fox News “reports to” so these viewers can “decide,” because, for me, Fox News is easy short hand for a bunch of stuff – for this reason – that the FS-ers were unmentionably both Marxists and articulate victims of Hitler – undoubtedly have never heard of the FS. If the perfectly coifed, high-skirted “news”-women of Fox, the pomaded Fox News-men, by some miracle (or an airplane intellectual digest of Marxism) and therefore might have heard something about Horkheimer, or Marcuse, it would be only as little shadowy insects under the rocks Roger Ailes would pick up and throw at.

I keep mentioning Fox News here because, as well, Fox News does represent a big slice of the consciousness of Americans today. It certainly isn’t because I like to mention Fox News. If I have to spend more than a second of my conscious waking life thinking about Sean Hannity, or Bill O’Reilly (who, I believe, does, indeed, have a master’s degree from Harvard – summer school, anyway, in their hotel management school), I develop a severe headache preliminary to Tourette’s Syndrome behavior. It’s just that Fox News is very big and has been in America almost since it first appeared on the scene.

In the years between the two world wars, not a great deal of attention was paid to the thinkers and writers of the FS, even though they were preparing masterpieces of iconoclastic scholarship. They did get sufficient attention after Hitler came to power to target them as enemies of the National Socialist state, and, in a particular, quite tragically ironic case, to cause one of them to commit suicide. After Hitler had laid waste to the world and died – perhaps, fittingly, for the FS, himself as a suicide, with Maria Braun, in a bunker in Berlin in 1945 – they carried on, some of them from exile in the United States, but, again, the Cold War literally froze them out of what was then the intellectual status quo. This loose-to-tight assemblage of thinkers consisted of Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Henryk Grossman, Jurgen Habermas (described as representing a “second generation” of the FS), Max Horkheimer, Leo Löwenthal, Herbert Marcuse, and Friedrich Pollock, with Walter Benjamin and Siegfreid Kracauer less directly or formally associated. All were Jews except Habermas and Pollock. “Frankfurt School” and “Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology” were terms later given to this group of like-thinkers, because of their common formal and less-than-formal association with the Frankfurt School for Social Research, an adjunct entity of the University of Frankfurt. All with the exception of Grossman, who was born in Cracow, were German-born – Habermas in Düsseldorf in 1929, Horkheimer in Stuttgart in 1895, Adorno, in 1903, Fromm and Löwenthal in Frankfurt in 1900, Pollock in Freiburg in 1894, Benjamin in 1892, and Marcuse in 1898, in Berlin. The span of years of their births, thus, was from 1895 to 1929. Their published works spanned the years from the time Horkheimer became director of the School for Social Research, in 1930, through to the works of Habermas, from the 1960’s on. Their friends included the Marxist historian, Ernst Bloch, and Gershom Scholem, scholar of the Kabbalah. Antonio Gramsci was a contemporary. Several of them focused in their doctoral work and then their habilitations, or post-doctoral teaching qualification writings, on Kant and Hegel; all wrote in opposition to the idealism of Fichte, Hegel, Schelling and their successors. The Institute functioned until its members fled Germany with the advent of Hitler as Chancellor and the one-party National Socialist state. Accordingly, many of the writings of the members of the FS were written from outside Germany, and the Institute, itself, was reconstituted only in 1949, when Adorno reunited with Horkheimer in Frankfurt; Adorno speaks of himself as one of the “damaged” (Minima Moralia) of his generation of exiles from fascism.

Before going into the matter more deeply, why are these men important? A digression here. Hopefully, you will enjoy it.

Institut für Sozialforschung, c.1930 and 1950

The principle focus of the work of the FS was consciousness.

Consciousness, as suggested or implied, has many different senses. Most attempts at formal definitions are deficient, in my view, even as there are many different approaches to its formal consideration, these several approaches each grappling with saying precisely what it is and simultaneously in completely different ways. (6) In this essay, I do not have in mind formulations or propositions about consciousness that derive from neurobiology. Not do I have in mind attempts to understand it and explain it by thinkers who come from a tradition in British and American philosophy called analytical philosophy. Neither of these approaches, the neurobiological or the analytical (often termed, “linguistic”), has dealt with issues in which a discussion of consciousness was central, issues that were, and are, of particular noteworthiness to Marx, and to the FS, and which, as I intimated at the beginning of this essay, are of great, central, and terrible importance to us now. (7) This is with respect to the sense of political, social, and historical consciousness, a very real panoply, practically speaking; “very real panoply” struggles to be less approximative in its sense; but it is what Edmund Husserl, the founder of phenomenology, would “bracket” as a “natural standpoint” of consciousness. Husserl’s radically empirical phenomenology incorporated a “transcendental ego,” ostensibly free – after phenomenological reduction – of “the natural standpoint,” with its unexamined presuppositions; the existentialist, Sartre, and the post-existentialist, Heidegger, particularly, denied the possibility of Husserl’s transcendental ego. Many people would assert not only that political, social, and historical consciousness are considerations with a great deal to say that is quite relevant, if not “truer” as a context of consideration than any other. (Marxists would agree.) More about the philosophical consideration of consciousness in a bit.

A Theme Park
But first, a digression from this digression that may seem to you yet further removed from the announced subject of this article. I assure you it does speak to the subject of the FS.

In another sense of the word – noting here the “bad faith consciousness” just mentioned – given that the expansion of “capitalist democracy” – read, increasing hegemonic monopolistic aggrandizement of the planet by multinational corporations – such is the businessification of every human transaction, financial, psychological, social, intellectual, and so forth, any entity or undertaking, even a Spike essay such as this, these days must have a “business plan.” (One can envisage this in the waylaid consciousness of today: “first the essay, then the movie,” as literally everything is transformed for the sake of capital. Karl Polanyi called this turn in consciousness “the great transformation.”)

So: the business plan. For it occurs to me there is a way that takes into account reflexively the assigned subject: a theme park.

Now, to the corporate magistri of the theme park industry!, (8) those controlling the images and profit margins of Mickey Mouse, Universal Pictures, Dolly Parton, and so forth: Do not fear! I am not seeking financing yet, so you do not have to worry about a player added to the competitive field. But it is tempting…

I see in my mind’s eye a great dream house, an enormous structure like William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon – a main building in the theme park – containing within it hundreds of rooms, several with amalgamations of Victorian armchair boudoirs. In addition, there are basements with Steampunkt factory-like apparatus, great pipes and so forth. Upper floors are given over to clothing factories with women workers crowding to the windows to jump to their deaths because the factories are on fire. Mysterious tunnels lead from the main house to out-buildings where physicists split the atom into tinier and tinier particles; both Marx and modern physics look at matter, and it may be they work on roughly similar problems. We certainly have seen how Marx’s experiments to split the atom of history have produced enormous energies, that is, of revolution.

In this wonderful, now ghostly mansion, escorted or ferried around by actors in various disguise (from sans culottes to berets to uniforms with the Red Star on it), one can see what is revealed to be, from strolling around, an enormous, oddly misshapen, but principally absolutely utilitarian – proletarian – architecture. Adjacent to Marx’s study are lecture halls for Horkheimer and Adorno and others; one can imagine Benjamin creeping in from time to time after long bouts of excitement, drink and confession with Bertolt Brecht, Marxist poet and playwright of The Threepenny Opera and founder of “epic theater” (his apartment, with theater props, lights, dimmers, masks, standing everywhere, is nearby, as well). There are two kitchens, one bare of most appliances, indeed, having only a propane stove, with shelves of cans of the soup shown in the illustration, another with all of the appliances and pantries of delicacies for the nomenklatura. Apartments are given over, in varying proximity to or distance from Marx’s great overstuffed armchair, to the constituent parts of Marx’s heritage and legacy, for example, formal, modern, all steel rooms for the structural Marxists – Althusser, Godelier (decorated with African masks) and Meillasoux. A series of apartments shaped like an ice pick is reserved for “Trotskyism.”

We see outside, through the window, a scarecrow looking like Levi-Strauss glaring at someone, a little man with a much taller woman; we are tempted to console him though we don’t know for what. (9) Nearby, Gramsci sits in a prison cell, chewing on the stub of his pencil. Other, smaller mansions are clustered near the main house. The Bolsheviks occupy the ground floor of one, their young, intense, sad countenances drawn with the exaggerated pen of Stalin – an obsessive doodler and talented caricaturist; they each have a bullet hole in their foreheads. Mao, a talented poet, occupies another; in beautiful calligraphy, sheets of his poems are stuck onto the bamboo screen walls; numerous young, beautiful and scantily robed Chinese women come and go, each holding a pot of tea. An ominous, cold-black, star-shaped structure is still under construction in a field of stubble; sounds of Stukas diving, machine guns, and explosions are heard from somewhere inside. A gift shop sells postcards of abandoned, skeletal children struggling with too-heavy oversize suitcases on the Cote d’Azur… As with other semiotics of the theme park, we use the pen and camera of W. G. Sebald for whom color was of great importance because the alienation of the elements one from the other allows for, or dictates as fact of a new physics, color as so unassimilable yet so eye-catching and impossible to do without (with a kind of imaginary poignance) that its deployment in the schemata of the theme park strikes us with both the pain of untreatable cancer and the anodyne of addiction: forgetting, the nagging pain remnant within the merciful death otherwise of memory.

Self-portrait by Adorno

It strikes me that the best design for the contemplated theme park would be to place the entire many square kilometers of it against the backdrop of a giant slightly concave mirror. This is because a crucial pattern in Marx’s thought has to do with a doubling of things, not only his theories of value and of labor but his comment famously revising Hegel, for example: that all important facts of history are repeated, with the second one farce. The concavity of the giant mirror reflects back a distorted whole: without the reflexive, all wholes are false or inauthentic … even with the reflexive that can be the case, a hall of mirrors or infinite bouncing back and forth of the reflection, in pursuit of the synthesis. While I expound on this a little later, suffice to say that one of the greatest illustrations of the principle of the double, or the instant or automatic doubleness of the human Being, that is, as subject or “for-itself” – which is also to say of human consciousness – is the series of woodcuts created by an early contemporary of the FS, the German expressionist painter and founder of Die Brücke, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; Kirchner may be the Episteme for the first half of the twentieth century, the last decades of the Modern. The series, “Peter Shlemihl and his Shadow,” iconically represents the impossibility of wholeness. About this idea, by the way – intriguing testimony to the continuing deep power and relevance of FS thought – in his Minima Moralia, Theodor Adorno observed how the Fragment shows more than the original Whole: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.” A seeming, great conundrum: the greater – emergent – substance is that of the shadow or the double – the antagonist – when placed next to the original or agonist. The notion, again is Hegelian: the thesis always holds within itself the seed of its destruction, which is the antithesis, which, in turn, holds within it the further, unifying step of the two, the synthesis. For the FS, renowned for their “pessimism,” the synthesis is an existential impossibility. The curious, somehow deeply disturbing sense of being second-hand is the overriding experience of collapsed modernity. This is hugely, hugely important to grasp if you wish truly to understand modern-to-postmodern consciousness and history, that is, epistemically. Big word, very key, these days. But perhaps best put off for another article.

We can keep on walking through the theme park, but we’re likely getting tired and could use some sustenance, or a couple of cold ones, maybe. As we leave it for now, I suggest the theme park dedicated to the Great and Terrible Man does have much to be said for it. For one thing, there are so many fun and funny ways to collect the admission fee. The transaction serves, in and of itself, as a reminder – reiterated by the situating of the theme park away from everything else, not a tree, other building, not even a locust for a new John the Baptist, nothing, to suggest a context of “civilization” into which it and its subject matter are integrated (an abandoned combine farm – its farmers long-since bought out and downsized – could be purchased in the vast plains of America’s midlands) – that the medium still is the message, that transactions based on capital wipe out everything else, (10) that digests of experience and life are prized, not merely required, by the New Man, Consumer-Man, who – if we are to believe those wistfully hopeful that “Late Capitalism” is soon to be “The Late Capitalism,” as in the deceased capitalism – is already becoming passe. (I hate to point out to these good folks that capitalism seems to create its own worlds.) Another benefit of our theme park of Marxism is that it anticipates the farcical second appearance of the lebenswelt, the “lifeworld,” “lived experience,” (11) one of the hallmark notions of continental philosophy, as elaborated in modern times early on by Husserl and then much later again by Habermas – in that it makes the lifeworld a consumable, with a price on it. As pre-digested experience is what the palate of the Right greatly prefers, I might be able to make some money for our stockholders out of the contemplated theme park, and isolate this most extreme duplicity for study by (inevitably leftist) social scientists who appropriately have been determined to come mainly from disenfranchised or marginalized peoples, Jews, for example. (End of digression. I hope you enjoyed it. I hope you’re still chugging away with me.)

The Entirely Reasonable Pessimism of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology
That Marx was so important in the opinions of the members of the FS should not be taken for granted nor their individual contributions diminished in whatever way because of the secondary or commentator character of much of their work. Rather, it seems the truer and more responsible assessment to make of the School that its members understood Marx better than his other interpreters, followers, and critics – because they were able to take Marxism and go forward with it in new and concrete ways, and, in so doing, they recovered for us or reoriented us to evaluate, once again, the usefulness and relevance Marx’s writings and ideas continue to have, or not to have, for us.

The FS came into being in the years between the two world wars – notable peaks of human slaughter in a century that witnessed 365 million lost due to wars – and at the beginning of the worldwide Great Depression. Hence, the undue “pessimism” they have been accused of is the more remarkable for its having been overcome at least as forecast. If recognizing a fault in us of morality (fairness, justice, amelioration of human suffering) is insufficient to change our ways – which the FS critiques and studies can help us to do by showing us how we think wrongly about matters social, economic, political, and aesthetic – then the vital threats to our physical survival should at least require us to take another prolonged and serious look at the extraordinary inequalities of Western society internally and by comparison with the rest of the world, inequalities that threaten human existence; the productions of the FS-ers provide conceptual tools to help us understand our situation and, hopefully, if not solve our problems, point us in a better direction – toward a more just social model. How do they accomplish this?

As consciousness is a key topic for Marx, and more particularly for the FS, some more elaboration here is called for. If Husserl erred with regard to the transcendental ego, and there is, indeed, no such thing as “pure consciousness” (it is a great credit to him that he emphasized the “intentionality” of consciousness, which made clear that one cannot be conscious unless there is some thing that one is conscious of – consciousness is always and only intentional, as he put it, in the Cartesian Meditations), it was not not only completely justified for Marx and the FS to stress particular consciousness, for example, a consciousness in which the Western Enlightenment has been prominent if not dominant. It needed to be critiqued.

The Frankfurt School theorists took a tack with what otherwise is one of the big problems with critical theory – and romantic, or continental, philosophy (the philosophy that sprang from Descartes and passed through the German idealists – more on this a bit later), and that manifested as a common, early misinterpretation of Marx – the positivist assumption that man, and human consciousness, are privileged or special emergents, that can or must be considered untouched by physical (e.g., biological) or material constraints or frames of interpretation. Without proper attention to the issue we must ask not what makes human consciousness unique or special but is human consciousness unique or special? Even if we resort to the cogito (see below), we are assuming human consciousness is privileged, and that it stands apart from any consideration other than its own consideration of itself – bracketing all considerations from a “natural standpoint.” This is the phenomenological and existential approach, and it would seem, then, to be one reason why romantic philosophy, as it ultimately manifested in Marxism, inevitably leads to activism. In Reason and Revolution Marcuse wrote: “Hegel’s system … brought philosophy to the threshold of its negation and thus constituted the sole link between the old and the new form of critical theory, between philosophy and social theory.” Such a statement refers to the biased, worldly or “actual” involvement of the thinker/philosopher in society and history, which is precisely what Marx implies in the Preface to the First German Edition (of Capital), (12) and what he affirms, outright, in the Theses on Feuerbach: philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.

More to the specific point here, to truly understand the content of the thought of the FS, as suggested earlier – and while many hints and ideas already have been given – one needs to grapple with the term and concept, consciousness. This is because so much of what they wrote about, extrapolating from Marx, in order, they believed, properly to strengthen and protect the great edifice of the Master, was also because consciousness was where the relevance, with renewed and even greater significance, lay, that is, to consciousnesses, plural.

As articulated in perhaps the key contribution of the FS, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, “domination” was the enemy of authentic consciousness. How does this reverberate within Marxist thought which, otherwise, has seemed to stress historical cause located on the substructural, material, level?

One of the most important, if not the most important, issues in and ramifications of later Marxist thought falls under the heading, critical theory – ironically a rather uncritically examined notion that includes both sociological concerns (e.g., consciousness as part of the work of authentic social – socialist – action, as well as aesthetic, e.g., “post-modern,” literary theory); here I mean the term with respect to one particular denotation, the turn – or the reflexive – in consciousness by which one becomes aware of oneself and the constitutive (Husserl again) nature of consciousness. An immediate insight follows: that positivism is an insupportable metaphysic because it springs from a non-transparent, non self-aware, consciousness. (You can understand how “critical,” then, also means “careful” scrutiny but not merely that: careful scrutiny with one arbiter or standard – concrete historical process, that is, dialectical process.)

In our theme park, by the way, one of the first busts we encounter of Great Men predecessory to Marx is Descartes. This great splitter between the scientifically rational and the irrational also was the enunciator of a momentous discovery, that of the reflexive or the critical, which we have encountered several times already in our theme park of Marx. The cogito, as it is often referred to in philosophical tracts – taken from the statement, cogito ergo sum – was an a priori and self-evident insight, simultaneously instantly, transparently clear and extremely penetrating or deep, as it led to the secondary, necessarily implied, conclusions of the existential. These ramifications and permutations, thereafter, were explored by Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Husserl (very explicitly in the Cartesian Meditations), Heidegger, and others, such as Gadamer and Ricoeur, writing, for example, about the hermeneutic. Contra sophist nitpickers and the analytic philosophers, in general, there is a straight, intuitive line one can trace through all of these thinkers from the self-given, a priori insight of the cogito, as each, in turn and with a particular field or discipline or body of thought, amplified and elaborated on it. Contra same, there is no negating this line of thought because it is completely and self-evidently logical and true, and exclusively so with regard to the radices of philosophy, which is to say: if a consciousness is going to study either the formal philosophical categories of ontology and epistemology, he finds he is doing to do so only in combination, that is, both ontologically and epistemologically. Again, making the commitment to do so must always begin with the cogito, for it is the only self-evident proposition in the universe of assertions and assumptions of what must be considered the most fundamental intellectual undertaking of all, philosophy … well, most fundamental short of social revolution. Although their emphases were not purely philosophical but, rather, sociological, historical, and aesthetic, the members of the FS wrote entirely within this tradition and this trajectory.

Not to belabor the point, the fundamental insight to grasp is that every beginning in pure thought must spring from the cogito – even, as I say, as it leads ultimately to action (cf. the last lines of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness). The concrete things of the universe are made concrete by the so-called subject – by consciousness, and, accordingly, there is a double action entailed of man-in-the-world, which, as Heidegger, pointed out, is the only way we humans are. This double action consists of the world, first, and then the world observed and constituted – discovered and created simultaneously, which appears to be an impossible contradiction but in truth is not so – it is only contradictory because of the existential condition of the for-itself.

The fact that in his later years Heidegger chose to devote his time to thinking about poetry – using Hölderlin as the particular subject for his speculations – is understandable; it is particularly with language that he believed is the clue needed to untie the Gordian Knot of the hermeneutic. This is because language, and, particularly exemplary, the language of certain great poets, expresses the emergent – the shadow, the double, the antagonist. In so doing is revealed how the antagonist is bigger and more substantial than the agonist. This is to say that the antithesis will always be larger and more substantial, in existential reality, than the thesis. There is no negative symmetry. The fact that completely occupying the meaning of the thesis sows the seeds of its destruction does not mean they are equal; they are unequal. Sartre’s dichotomy of thetic and non-thetic also makes this clear; the non-thetic corresponds with “lived experience.” (As much as Heidegger was fascinated with poetic language, I very much regret that the FS writers did not respond to German expressionist painting and, specifically – a personal wish – to Kirchner’s “Peter Shlemihl,” which I suggest is perhaps the most lucid and touchstone-living work of art that illustrates these tensions.)

All of those associated with the FS were linked by commonly held concerns about the distortion, and vitiation, of Marx’s thought and work. Subsequent interpretations and/or quite different formulations after Marx’s death were based either closely or not so closely on Marx – the first utterances by Marx and Engels – the “primary sources” – are said to be “classical Marxism.” Greatly simplifying and noting only the most prominent individuals and schools of thought, in the immediate period after Marx’s death in 1883, the spotlight shifted to newcomers on the stage, for example, to most of the revolutionary groups in Czarist Russia and, later, in post World War One Germany, to Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Already, formally denoted “socialist” groups and movements, responding to the contradictions and emiseration of capitalism and neo-liberalism, had sprung up, for example, the Fabianists in England.

In more theoretical terms, in addition to arguments about what Marx meant, the debates were about how to proceed (e.g., Lenin’s What Are We To Do?, composed between 1901 and 1902); there was an urgency about Marx and his thinking because finding a way structurally to alleviate human suffering, as an outcome, particularly, of industrialization, was a central motivation – a motivation both instinctive or reflexive and mentioned as a matter of course by Marx, himself. Accordingly, early post-Marx debate revolved around such matters as permanent revolution or revolution-in-one-country (Russia) and about peasant vs proletariat revolution. Debate focused, also, on epistemological and other more purely philosophical matters. In addition to the nature of consciousness, the idea of the “dialectic” and Hegel’s formulations with regard to historical process, the struggle between the “classes” (proletariat vs bourgeois), the nature of history, materialism vs idealism, history vs process, and so on, all received more or less their due attention and moments, singularly and recurring, on the stage.

The members of the FS were concerned with what Marx meant. They were as tightly knit or as loosely bound as these intellects, mostly quite in sympathy with one other, were permitted, found, or required by the arguments and intellectual advances themselves – they were internally consistent and logical as much as they derived naturally or organically from Marx. They chose as their focus the novel, but now assumed fundamental, corrections to and reapplications of a Marxism that not only had, with Stalin, gone majorly bad but, in addition, more generally, been diverted or distracted by the theoretical interpretations of dogmatic, reductionist, supposed orthodoxy (at the time what we now would see as unreconstructed opportunist or ad hoc “communist” revolutions in single countries – the Soviet Union – contra Trotsky’s world revolution). In addition, the FS-ers sought to remedy the faults or grave missteps of positivism, materialism, and determinism that were threatening to derail the relevance of Marx and Marxism. It is probably important to keep in mind that of these three sins, positivism has been the most insidious, ironically, in its theoretical malefactions and still the most useful to deconstruct, for example, for the sake of the hermeneutic, but, fundamentally, because positivism has proven to be the hardest nut to crack, with Anglo-American analytic philosophy, such as logical positivism, and its successors, having many adherents dismissive of the reflexive impulse and insight because they simply do not seem to understand it.

And, as far as we can tell – without the full hindsight yet of a history extending into a post-capitalist age – the truly enormous transformations of human society and humankind wrought by the technological revolution or the developments of the information age, as well the planet-wide degradations of the environment, and human overpopulation – given all of these wholesale transformations of human life on Planet Earth, it is a wonder that this relatively modest, soberly pessimistic body of commentary and analysis, by contrast not seeking great attention to itself within the context of the vast rightwing-conspiring post-Reagan epoch we now live in, has survived at least to the extent that its ideas, again, seem so sufficiently intriguing as more than a little appropriate and applicable still – and particularly now, when the epistemic consciousness is so ransacked and set against itself.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in 1965

Some of the Main Works and Useful Theses for Today’s Hopeful and Otherwise Lost in a World of (Other) Theme Parks … and a Soapbox Rant, or Two
Just as I urge, in this walk-through of the rooms devoted to the FS in the theme park of Marx, renewed or new attention to particular FS-ers, I want to underscore that each of them contributed important theses reinterpreting their Master but also going beyond where he had time or energy to look as they also analyzed social forms unexperienced by Marx – totalitarian societies (National Socialist, inspired by Pollock’s habilitation, and Stalinist, as dissected by Marcuse) as well as the Western consumer societies, for example.

Arguably, the most influential has been Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). In addition to an affirmation that a focus on consciousness is an essential component of Marx’s contributions, the principal insight of this work was that hoary Western intellectual advances, primarily the Enlightenment, were partly formed by and considerably contributed to precisely the negation of the kinds of values explicitly proposed; this insight represented a reflexive or self-aware distancing from enormous, blanket, unexamined presuppositions (cf. Husserl). One recent reviewer wrote of the “continuing relevance” of the work, which describes “…modernity as a world of restricted thought and suppressed alternatives…” and, therefore, as needing to be overthrown, noting the Dialectic’s emphases on “…the all-pervasiveness of commoditizing social relations, the totalizing presence of cultural production, and the domination of the critical faculties of rational thought” (ibid.) The fundamental point of the book is the critical or reflexive stance of its authors apart or outside of the Enlightenment “myth”; the truly reflexive or critical which was only forecast or foreshadowed by Marx (working as he did, however, directly within the romantic tradition, in his case, of Kant and Hegel), described by Horkheimer and Adorno within but apart from Enlightenment “rationality” (as much as self-awareness permits), then, is a key contribution made many decades ago and that has special relevance now, when the domination of capitalism even in mass consciousness seems so complete and unchallengeable that its puppeteers seem not to fear the image of absurdity – as cut-and-paste disconnected pieces of consciousness (cf. Benjamin’s “Arcades”) in hilarious juxtaposition. (Clicks of the tv remote through the hundreds of channels available now provide the most extreme contrasts of content and affect, the only glue holding them together, a glue that is also a mindless soporific, the selling of things.)

Adorno on his own produced the Minima Moralia. Written during World War Two but not published until 1951, this was composed as “aphorisms,” or short definitions of common words and phrases that served, for Adorno, as inspirations for what might be described as blues or jazz riffs of usually melancholy mood on the sorry state of things in modernity – a “damaged” and treacherously hypocritical and unreflective consciousness and existence.

In this way, Adorno echoes another FS-er, Walter Benjamin. His “arcades project” is only partially published, rescued from National Socialism and Benjamin’s suicide which occurred when he had escaped the Gestapo by slipping into Catalonia but was informed, mistakenly, that he would have to return to Vichy France. The arcades are the stalls, in 19th century Paris, where, Benjamin posits, for the first time the modern age of capital was transforming, overwhelming, consciousness by diverting it into the disjointed stream of the commodity. Projected onto the modern consciousness in the arcades – stalls where advertisements appeared and where things could be bought, things the individual never knew existed, and certainly never knew it, or he, or she, “wanted.” This “freedom” fragmented not only consciousness but identity. The only common factor belonging to the things for sale in the stalls was that they were for sale. There was no other organically connected ideology than commodity and profit. The Paris arcades were the kernel, Benjamin wrote, for “the mechanical reproduction” of consciousness, the effect being the passing of the self into the limbo of things, down endless alleyways and sidetracks. The commodified consciousness has come to define modernity, collapsed modernity, and post-modernity. As capital has continued to transform the world, now, with advanced capitalism, consciousness has been digitized on the internet where “virtually” (remember “lived experience”?), in ever more exact fashion, with bots tracking our buying impulses, capital not only finds “what we want”but constructs and instructs our identities by the things we are made to want to buy for the sake of more capital.

Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man makes the observation, so relevant today, that consumerism represents a profound form of alienation in capitalist societies; Eros and Civilization argued that Freud and psychoanalysis represented “critical social theory.” Marcuse’s first work, and one of the earliest book publications of the FS, was Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (1941), which argued that Marx and the line of critical thought he promulgated was the correct and natural consequence of Hegel.

Habermas – a “second generation” FS-er, and student in the 1950’s of Horkheimer and Adorno at Frankfurt (in the reconstituted School for Social Research) – is the Grand Old Man today of German philosophy. Knowledge and Human Interests (1968), his first comprehensive statement about critical social theory, was descriptive or “anthropological” in that he discerned three types of “knowledge-constitutive interests,” the elucidation of which permits the third of these, “emancipatory interest” to “[overcome] dogmatism, compulsion, and domination” (cf this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry). Theory of Communicative Action (1981) remains his major work. As second generation but still formally of the FS in affiliation and training, Habermas seems to depart from Marx’s prescriptions of the dialectics of class conflict, stressing, for example, that rationality as realized in communication between individuals and groups, can defeat or circumvent the negatives of modernity and postmodernity, even as his propositions remain socially grounded and meaningful rather than what social scientists have long since dismissed as “methodologically individualist.” (“Economic Man” is an artificial creation; if we are going to atomize humanity, far closer to reality, or the reality those of us who consider that we like and value human beings, and life, itself, would prefer, I might suggest to you, is “Social Man.”)

In our theme park, of course, are countless soap boxes. I am now standing on one of these, as I call out to you on my bullhorn:

These are but some of the major contributions of the FS. I urge Spike readers to explore these and other works that I have just touched on here or not had the space to mention. All are of precious value, historically. But, much more importantly, vitally importantly, taken together, the books and essays of the FS offer great spurs to a fully dialectical “enlightenment.” With their guidance, we can understand how too many of us have been deconstructed and constructed for the sake of capital. The commercials on television, in general, and now on the internet – teaching us in the First World that self-fulfillment comes from buying with our credit cards stuff that ultimately is destroying the world, as consumerism eats up the planet, teaching the Third World the same thing as we in the West hopefully learn to reject the name, consumer, and reject the process of consumerism, and, simultaneously, continuing without discrimination to emiserate all and anyone for the sake of the Blankfeins of Wall Street, and the Murdochs of the media and “news” world, and the Koch brothers of toilet paper, and energy, and whatever else it is these funders of the Tea Party movement, make and sell us … well, we can learn to turn these off. We can learn to resist as one, enlightened mass: the People…

Okay. Not yelling anymore.

But these are the kinds of activism the FS permits us to understand and consider. The FS also, again, points us back to Marx for fundamental and critical analysis of historical – dialectical – social process.

Placed again in formal context, a true assessment of the FS as a whole, its impact and heritage today, allows us to understand where both continental philosophy and Marx went before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Marx, particularly, was an exponent of great social action, but so it seems have been the masses in Tunisia and Egypt just these past few months.

The point I wish to make is that whatever you may think you think about Marx and Marxists it is still the case that your consciousness does not have to be fractured, or fragmented, or bought and sold. More people tan one might suspect believe that things have reached a critical stage. If you feel the stirrings, the same beleaguerment and frustration that I feel, just maybe like the revolutionaries in Egypt these past few months, you can help start to make something happen. Incidentally, with this encouragement I am entirely true to the continental philosophy this article I am sure made clear I adhere to: the thought, as I say, straight from Descartes, forerunner of the Great Enlightenment, the thesis of which the FS showed us sowed the seeds of its own destruction, through to today.

Conclusions: Leaving the Park
There are various doors out of the theme park. The type of exit depends on how well the visitor to the park scores on a little quiz given by smiling docents. Obviously you need to acknowledge the outstanding likelihood of discovering insights of extraordinary relevance not only to understanding but also hopefully helping to resolve some of the almost unspeakably horrendous and terrible contradictions in society and consciousness today. A passing grade, by the way, opens a door leading to an invitation to join a commune of attractive, passionate, men, women, and children, each possessing a unique talent – each of them absolutely fascinating and commendable (musician, physicist, chess player, athlete, plumber, agronomist, poet, truck driver, etc.), each not merely accepting of but welcoming the dictum, “To each according to need, from each according to ability”; in the background, an orchestra plays the Internationale. A failing grade, however, opens a door shunting one down a crude concrete tunnel into a sty full of starving pigs.

We have seen the monsters that “communism” can produce. By now, surely we know well the monsters that “capitalism” produces and which, contrary to bourgeois faith, appear to be far worse. Is it really necessary to continue to point out that the cheers of the capitalist brokers and cynical so-called ideologues on the right are hypocritical, red herring, lies and cant, that, for example, “communism” is bad because of the likes of Stalin or Mao, or, incredibly more stupidly, because of the supposed slippery slope of “big government,” and that “capitalism” – synonymous with democracy (not!) is best because (a Hobbesian) “human nature” unchangeably is what it is? If these hypocritical repeat-dissemblers and disinformers, cunningly misinform, in order to mislead, those led also by these patriots to not think, to not question – the “Christian,” NRA- and NASCAR-devoted, “pro-life,” Obama-doesn’t-have-a-US-birth certificate types – one wonders how it must still be necessary to point out that what Marxists with justification (read the history!, I suggest to you) call the “capitalist-imperialist wars” of the last century killed ten times as many human beings than one can lay at the feet of Stalin and Mao combined. By saying this by no means am I suggesting that Mao and Stalin were in any universe to be considered good guys; no, how they used their power made them into great monsters. But one wonders how it must still be necessary to point out, as those writers and thinkers of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology, despite their general pessimism – or, perhaps, dialectically because of it! – have been implying: that Socialist Man is possible. From the worst can come the best. The human species continues to evolve: evolutionary biology affirms this. The seemingly revolutionary uprisings in the Arab world going on today may begin to confirm this. We must wait to see if these revolutions are only more the wannabe turmoils of Consumer Man, that is, waylaid and sabotaged and distorted against themselves by capital and what Habermas and others of the FS term, simply, The System.

The FS’s members were in fundamental agreement that Marxism largely had fallen to narrow parroting in defense of orthodox Communist parties and regimes. Epistemologically, they were concerned that positivist assumptions still prevailed. And they were motivated, as well, by the fact that “traditional” Marxist theory could not adequately explain the turbulent and unexpected development of capitalist societies in the twentieth century – “traditional,” meaning, in this case, extrapolations from and interpretations that did not necessarily follow or agree with what Marx, himself would think or might have thought. It is important, therefore, to emphasize that as much as Marx and his theories continued then and continue now seem to have extraordinary relevance and to provide invaluable insight into historical and social process, the FS has formed what must be considered an essential part of the efforts, through time and space, of humans to build a better, more just and equitable, society. Of course, utopia inevitably becomes dystopia, and any huge shift in consciousness is not likely to alter Trotsky’s opinion of the tailless apes. But one must believe that only from such realistic pessimism, again, one of the keynotes of the FS, might we as a social species advance. The “critical” means self-aware – therefore, hopefully, continual checks on how we are doing. That the greatest culmination to date of the romantic impulse in Western thought was the work of a onetime Nazi, Heidegger, both confirms the pessimism of the FS and gives us hope that out of the black hole can come the long-awaited advance. Lashed by the legacies of world war horror, by death squads and genocides in Central America and Central Europe, in Africa and Asia, ridiculous hypocrisies of advertising and marketing as foretold by Benjamin’s “arcades” for contemporary consciousness, the fragmented consciousness of consumerism, will all this be overcome? In the worst are the seeds of the best? And if we can speak hopefully but realistically – despite the current prospects – what would or will the New World look like? The fine-tuned sensibilities and insights of the Frankfurt School of Critical Sociology may represent the type of consciousness that prevails, sooner or later.

Members of the Frankfurt School (date unknown)


  1. The “Reverend” Pat Robertson advocating, during one of his television sermons, employing a sniper to “take care” of Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela.
  2. Is there anyone who would suggest differently about the religious affiliation of Fox News employees?
  3. István Mészáros, who, in Socialism or Barbarism (1995) does extend the prophesied downfall of capitalism, brought about by the “internal contradictions” of same, to the ruination, ecologically, of the world.
  4. Having said this, some convergences are curious. The doomsday eschatology of the “Christian” right and the despairing left converge, although, for the latter, without the chiliasm: fire and brimstone for moral failings conflate with a now seemingly unavoidable world-wide environmental calamity. Another point in curious agreement: lack of awareness or understanding – proper consciousness – of the real or true situation is what has gotten us into such dire trouble.On the one hand, if more people believed in Jesus we would win our wars, powerful bad enemies of Christian America like Hugo Chavez would die – in his case leaving us his Venezuelan oil – and the American way (including multinational corporations) would be able to keep on the march certainly into all those places around the globe that fall within the sphere of “American interest,” which is pretty much the whole world. Everything would be just hunky-dory. Or almost so. Social security and Obamacare socialism still would have to be eradicated so that “taxpayer money” would no longer be used to prop up, artificially, those who otherwise are less “fit.” The invisible hand would take care of them – that is, by not taking care of them.
  5. Mark Lilla, “Slouching Toward Athens,” The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2005.
  6. This inquiry has been pursued notably by philosophers such as David Chalmers and David Dennett, but also by mathematicians such as Roger Penrose, working with anesthesiologists – in the latter case, postulating that “quantum action,” such as “tunneling,” “entanglement” or “superposition,” occurs in neuroanatomical “microtubules.” In other words, consciousness is considered as something in and of itself, that is, without contingency – they call understanding it the “hard problem” – by which “subjective” awareness, in the abstract, happens: How, why, or in what way does the experience of seeing the color red differ from the “fact” of red as a wavelength of light? In an unreconstructed or analytical philosophical manner, this often is called “reflexive,”meaning simply, more or less, “self-aware.”
  7. Sartre’s famous, “consciousness is what it is not and it is not what it is” is more a characterization than a definition; it contains a clue about how the dialectic of the “for-itself” and the “in-itself” operates and, hence, how the constitution of the world does not mean that the world is not already “there.” For, it is both – a seeming impossible contradiction until one realizes the dialectic precisely does not fix but moves back and forth as from two poles; the hermeneutical circle dilemma applies here, which nis not a dilemma, at all once one realizes the operations of consciousness in-the-world.
  8. I scratch my head at the daffiness of capitalism today. Check this out: for more on the subject of theme parks. But is it so daffy? Maybe crazy like a fox? Can theme parks be consonant with Evil? My intuition says, yes.
  9. The famous feud between Sartre and Levi-Strauss – basically as to whether consciousness effectively or completely is constructed or not – was a feud fought at the wrong place at the wrong time. The ultimate, and seemingly irreducibly impossible contradiction of the true whole of Being remains: that between the absolute concreteness, the “radically empirical,” to cite Husserl, on the one hand, and the constitution (Husserl, again) or construction by consciousness of What Is. Heidegger tortuously wrote about this. Marx – and his estimable followers, the apostles of the Frankfurt School – emphasized the dialectic precisely for this reason. And, to give Sartre his due, the existential does lead ineluctably to the “mystery of action,” as he noted at the end of Being and Nothingness.
  10. I keep reminding myself to research how Karl Polanyi deals with Marx… Someone, please, write in to Spike about this.
  11. “Lived experience”: one of those fascinating, seemingly impenetrable, or ridiculous, turns-of-phrase from later – existentialist – continental philosophy that can only be parsed by those who understand the implications of the original insight of Descartes, the cogito.
  12. “The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, wretchedly compiled. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind it. We should be appalled … if … commissions of inquiry into economic conditions … were … to get at the truth … the exploitation of women and children … housing and food…” (1867 [Capital 1977:9]). The Communist Manifesto (1848) also, of course, makes no bones about promoting revolutionary action.

Sweeping Narratives: Joan Didion

Kevin Fitzgerald gathers together the narrative fragments of Didion’s novels and finds that identity is a collaborative process

In her essay ‘Facing Reality’, Marilynne Robinson likens our present model of the world to so much ‘floorsweep’ – the meagre skimmings from a hundred years’ worth of economics, history, technology merged into a seamless narrative. It is a “collective fiction”, she thinks, and underwritten by its authority we vote, send our children to school and earn our living – but it is a “poor” contrivance which no one would believe in “if we did not want to”.

That narrative is the nightmare from which the novels of Joan Didion are trying to awake. Existing somewhere in the flotsam of Robinson’s sweepings – “the hot white empty core of the world” – they experience a kind of high anxiety over cause and effect. Dread-filled protagonists uncertainly, endlessly, encircle the “might, could, would, did, did not” against backdrops of deserts and equatorial islands – vanishing points where story lines never meet. Taco Bell and abortionists, film directors and arms dealers, newspapermen and CIA expats ally in some sinister, materialist continuum.

“What makes Iago evil, some people ask? I never ask”, thinks frazzled actress Maria Wyeth in Play It As It Lays. Languishing in rehab, she refuses to interpret Rorschachs – to see something in nothing. “They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exists”, she says of her evaluators. ‘NOTHING APPLIES’, she writes with electronic pencil.

Maria’s passive attitude in the novel has been criticised, but it is the modus operandi of her defiance. When we see her driving, conceiving “audacious lane changes, strategic shifts of gear”, on the spiralling multi-lane freeways of outer Los Angeles, she shares something with J.G. Ballard’s Vaughn in Crash – the lure of careering off a pre-constructed path, of escaping the science fictional, mass-produced narrative she no longer believes in.

But it is in the radical scenarios of Didion’s novel Democracy that this recalcitrance becomes most urgent. Characters in the novel often read as if they were not much more than an paper trail. They might be an entry in Who’s Who. They might be a label on a prescription bottle, a customer account at a bookstore. They might be a Vogue interview, a conversation heard in a Washington hotel lobby. They feel like a series of representations, ledger entries. And just like in any respectable totalitarian bureaucracy, those entries are frequently revised, downgraded, subject to imperfect recall (accidental or otherwise). CIA man Jack Lovett likes to sand his tracks with meticulous detail, never leaving the same name on bar tabs. He’s a man who leases one-bed rentals under the name ‘Mid-Pacific Development’. Obviously someone who stage manages world events can only leave the vaguest traces of his presence.

Meanwhile Inez Victor, who continues a long and doomed love affair with Lovett, struggles to maintain control over her biography. We see the novel slowly accrete into specifics, like a memory cautiously set down, as if it might at any moment be forgotten: “He said to her. Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor… Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor (who was born Inez Christian) in the spring of 1975”. The backdrop is the Vietnam endgame and the febrile Presidential campaign of husband Harry Victor. This is a world where nothing happens unless you read it in The New York Times. Watching a CBS broadcast about her life as a young girl, she hears about a childhood governess from Neuilly and how Inez was called Nezzie and how Nezzie spoke pidgin. She is silent: “There was no Mademoiselle. She had never been called Nezzie. She had never spoken pidgin. The governess from Neuilly had not been a governess at all but the French wife of a transport pilot who rented the studio over Cissy Christian’s garage”. Memory, Inez knows, is one of the first casualties of political and ideological posturing.

Covert stage-managing of events without leaving evidence and staying in control of the story… these seem like a writer’s concerns. And just as we are making this connection, Joan Didion herself enters the proceedings.

“Consider the role of the writer in the post-industrial society”, she turns to us and suddenly asks. “Consider the political implications of both the reliance on and distrust of abstract words.” Then the character Joan Didion reads The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Examiner and finds the same kind of Orwellian revisionism that we noticed earlier: “Tank battalions vanished between editions. Three hundred fixed wing aircraft disappeared in the new lead on a story about the President playing golf”. Environments are reorganised, individuals transposed, history restaged at a moment’s notice. The world is Authored. So is that the role of the writer in the post-industrial society? Or is it – paradoxically – the reverse: to challenge the authority of Narrative, to show us that history is a hoax, a bride stripped bare?

What started as political exposé is now something more complicated. Democracy is its own problem. The novel becomes conscious: it knows that to narrate is to corrupt. She asks us to “consider her own involvement in the setting”, and what ‘atmosphere’ results. There are puzzling questions about the implications of using the autobiographical third person. “Call me the author” she writes (recalling Melville), as if that were only a stand-in, a label to be discarded later for something more conclusive. Perhaps negotiator might be a better word? Through this narrated self, direct experience becomes mediated experience. Her ‘I’, just like Inez’s ‘I’, is destined to be a commentated ‘She’: a sometimes suffocating, disruptive imposition of one identity over another, but also possibly a sometimes open and reflective collaboration. Thus Democracy.

 What remnants, fragments are left over from this obliteration? If Democracy is about resisting narrative, it is at other times fascinated with the incantatory power of nouns, details. As if ineluctable matter is all that there were. Forget verbs, context. Nouns are immobile, context free. There are lists: “iridescence observed on the night sea off the Canaries, guano rocks sighted southeast of the Falklands, the billiards room at the old Hotel Estrella del Mar, a particular boiled beef lunch eaten on Tristan da Cunha”. Elsewhere there are “Brown-and-white spectator shoes, very smart. High heeled sandals made of white silk twine, very beautiful. White gardenias in her hair on the beach at Lanikai. A white silk blouse with silver sequins shaped like stars”. There is the list of cruise ships’ names Inez compiles. The Pacific functions as a tabula rasa – a vast stage upon which the fiction of US post war ideology was imposed. And then there is the final note she writes to explain her decampment to Kuala Lumpur: “Colors, moisture, heat, enough blue in the sky”. Those things alone, she explains, are “four fucking reasons” to stay.

Didion seems to have reached the same impasse as the ‘detonation theorists’ working out at the atolls in the Pacific, one of whom, Lovett tells Inez, was “a pretty fair Sunday painter”. But he could never quite paint the “nuclear pink of the dawn sky” after a shot. “Just never captured it,” Lovett tells Inez, “Never came close”. Didion might advise this artistically inclined physicist that he will never succeed in composing an accurate picture, and that it isn’t the point. The real trick is simply to note the debris patterns, particle trajectories, ignition sequences, fallout clouds – the dust that rises when a floor is swept.