Arts Week 2017: ‘He Doesn’t Talk Politics Anymore’: The Role of Politics in Contemporary US Fiction

This review was contributed by Dr Joseph Brooker, Department of English and Humanities

white-houseOn Thursday 18 May I introduced an event about the politics of US fiction since the 1960s. This was part of Arts Week 2017, and a contribution to the theme of art and politics which was one element of this year’s series of events. Though I had been involved in organizing the event, its substance was provided by two speakers, Professor Martin Eve and Dr Catherine Flay, which leaves me in a position to reflect and report on it.

Eve’s title came from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), where it refers to a character in the Second World War who comes under suspicion because of his reluctance to discuss politics. Had the same happened, Eve asked, to US fiction in recent times? To answer this question he problematized a number of the terms involved. What, for one thing, was now the meaning and scope of ‘American literature’: could it even, he provocatively asked, include writing from Iraq and Afghanistan under US occupation? What is the best meaning of ‘politics’ itself, and how should we consider politics’ translation into literary work: should this be measured in a utilitarian fashion by the work’s effects, in the form of action taken by readers influenced by fiction? A further issue is the limits of the corpus that we study: the canon of contemporary US fiction, Eve argued, is very narrow compared to the real range of what is published in the US, and does not necessarily correspond to what most people are reading – insofar as they are reading at all, as a recent statistic recorded that 25% of people did not read any novel in a year.

Eve also took note of the recent turn against ‘critique’ in literary and social studies. Scholars like Rita Felski have argued that ideology critique and the performance of symptomatic readings of literary narratives have become formulaic, and requested new models of critical reading. At the same time Bruno Latour in the social sciences has suggested withdrawal from the ideological critique of science as the revelation that science is ‘socially constructed’ can give excessive succour to authoritarian politicians who cast doubt on the evidence of climate change. Eve noted that these two critiques of critique in fact move in somewhat different directions and need to be viewed as distinct.

Eve noted that African-American writers might make a significant contribution to a discussion of the politics of fiction, but also that they had often seemed marginal next to a certain group of white writers such as Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace. Eve pointed out that black writers are often viewed primarily as black writers rather than as undertaking aesthetic experiments without special relation to their ethnicity – as Wallace, for instance, is often seen to do. The remarkable and prolific novelist Percival Everett has wickedly satirized and problematized these questions of racial identity and critical framing in his own highly self-conscious fiction.

Eve cast doubt on whether the metafiction of Pynchon, DeLillo or John Barth should be considered politically effective in any direct way, despite its political content. He noted that the cultural status of the novel was not what it had been, and observed that former President George W. Bush was not known to read fiction, save perhaps the government dossiers he had commissioned. (An audience member stated that Bush in 2006 had in fact taken Albert Camus’s The Stranger on holiday: beach reading indeed.) But Eve sought to move the argument on to what kinds of politics fiction might be involved in. In the 1960s, Eve noted, literature had been involved in the expansion of free speech, as legal trials against prohibited publications had foundered. Now, he stated, a different kind of politics was in play around the labour of writing, the remuneration involved, and the threat to bookselling posed by Amazon. The landscape sketched here was bleak, but Eve did not disclose how writers were using their literary labour as a form of activism against these new material conditions.

Dr Catherine Flay gave a full response to Professor Eve’s rich and diverse lecture. She proposed that in offering a space of play beyond market imperatives, fiction might offer models of ethics not typical of the contemporary world of work. She noted that fiction, and indeed literature more broadly, had shifted in significant ways since the 1960s, making a carefully particularized history necessary. The poet Allen Ginsberg among others, Flay reminded us, once sought to contribute as political activist. Where Eve had cited George W. Bush’s lack of interest in fiction, Flay cited the current President Donald J. Trump who in an interview had been asked what he read, and had responded by pointing vaguely to shelves of books. One thinks of The Great Gatsby whose titular figure has assembled an impressive library of books: they may be unread by Gatsby, a character remarks, but at least they’re real. I thought it striking that neither of our speakers, in considering such reading habits, had mentioned President Barack Obama, who late in his period of office spoke at length to novelist Marilynne Robinson about the importance of fiction in fostering empathy and imagination. Perhaps Obama, temporarily, had already entered the notorious obscurity of ‘the day before yesterday’.

In a short period for questions, lively responses came from the audience. One audience member noted that the term ‘populism’ had also been absent, defining it briskly as ‘politics for people who don’t like politics’, and suggesting that complex postmodern fiction was rather antithetical to the political populism of the present. Another asked about distinctions between ethics and politics, and another suggested that if fiction lacked political ambition this reflected what feels like a lack of individual agency to effect change. I wondered whether a comparison of genres would reveal some differences here: whether fantasy, for instance, allows for individual agency in a way that the contemporary realist novel might not, or how the entrapping social webs of crime fiction would compare.

Professor Eve had concluded that his reflections on the politics of fiction needed to be cautious, as these issues were ‘shifting below our feet, part of a matrix of culture and politics that we cannot accurately measure because there are too many interrelated factors’. The contributors to tonight’s event pointed us to some of these diverse factors that we ought to keep in mind if we ask whether fiction ‘doesn’t talk politics anymore’.

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The EU Referendum: Will It Be In Or Out?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was originally posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on 9 June 2016.

drapeaux européens

On 8th June Birkbeck Politics staff discussed the UK’s EU referendum, looking at what has happened so far and what may yet take place on the 23rd June.

The panel began by looking into why the UK was having a referendum, discussing the many hidden and not to hidden factors behind it. These stretched from Cameron’s gamble, that a referendum would cure the short term threat of UKIP and unhappiness in the Conservative party, to the long term distrust towards the European Union project in the UK, harking all the way back to Britain’s campaign of attempted sabotage of the project in the 1950s and reluctant joining in the 1970s.

Reflecting on the campaign so far, the panel spoke of how referenda are, by their nature, proxies for all sorts of other subjects. The EU referendum is actually about immigration, democracy and sovereignty. Despite their popular appeal, they can also be anti-democratic in focusing so narrowly on a single decision, and pursuing a seemingly simple answer to what are complicated issues.

There was also concern at the low level of debate and failure, on both sides, to engage with facts or global realities, from international trade to the modern mass movement of people (see the Treasury Committee report here that similarly complained of the ‘inconsistent, unqualified and, in some cases, misleading claims and counter-claims’ made by both sides).

The panel also reflected on how different views of the EU split different parts of England and the United Kingdom-creating what has been called a Disunited Kingdom of intentions and support. What would happen if Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain but England and Wales wished to leave? It could all get complicated and this paper speaks of some of the profound constitutional consequences. But do referenda’s ever solve an issue (think Scotland in 2014)? The panel thought it is unlikely to be the last EU referendum the UK has.

In terms of the voting itself, the polls so far show a knife edge result, resting on the margin of error. To find out what our panel think will happen on the 23rd June (and why José Mourinho’s views could prove decisive) listen to the podcast below.

Find Out More

  • For polling data and analyses see John Curtice’s What UK Thinks website and Matt Singh’s Number Cruncher Politics
  • The betting odds are here  (it looks roughly 77% remain vs. 25-28% Leave)
  • The House of Commons Library impartial background research on the referendum, Brexit and issues it raises here
  • On the panel were: Rosie Campbell‎; Dionyssis G. Dimitrakopoulos‎; Dermot Hodson‎; Deborah Mabbett‎; Jason Edwards
  • Courses in the Department of Politics
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Eric J. Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture 2016: “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” by Sir Richard J. Evans – reflections from a Hobsbawm Scholar

This post was contributed by Antonio E Weiss, a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and a 2014 recipient of a Hobsbawm Schoalrship.

Sir Richard Evans’ lecture on “European History in the Age of Hobsbawm” provided an excellent opportunity to reflect on the nature and legacy of a towering figure of modern history in general, and Birkbeck College in particuar.

Evans opened with a 23 year-old Eric Hobsbawm on the verge of tears in 1940 as he packed his books in preparation for serving on the front-line in the war effort. Hobsbawm had a voracious appetite for a wide variety of literature – Balzac, Melville – and eclectic musical tastes, spanEric Hobsbawmning jazz and classical. As part of his latest work, Evans has had access to Hobsbawm’s diaries, providing a fascinating window into Hobsbawm’s life. It is Hobsbawm’s keen and wide interest in culture, of all forms and varieties, but with a particularly European focus, which helps to explain his emergence as such a special and influential figure of the twentieth century.

As a hugely grateful recipient of the generous Hobsbawm Scholarship Fund (to fund trips to Scottish and Irish archives as part of my PhD research on the history of the British state’s use of management consultancy firms in the twentieth century), Evans’ words on the unique contribution of Hobsbawm to historical scholarship made me reflect on the great privilege it is so receive support from the Fund. As Evans identified, The Age of Revolution (published in 1962 and the first of Hobsbawm’s trilogy of books on the “long nineteenth century”) was distinctive for two, critical, reasons. First, in an era when the focus of British historian was on nationalism and nation-states, Hobsbawm took a transnational approach, spanning his inquiry across countries. And second, highly influenced by the Annales School, Hobsbawm’s elevation of the importance of economic and social history, was in marked distinction to the focus on political and diplomatic history at the time, favoured by figures such as A.J.P. Taylor.

So much has been written and discussed about Eric Hobsbawm’s relationship with the Communist Party and his writings as a “Marxist historian” that attention has, potentially, been deflected from the enduring legacy of his contribution to history as a discipline. It is not hard to see the impact of Hobsbawm on my own research, even though the time and subject matter may initially appear far removed from Hobsbawm’s own historical concerns.

My research, on consultancy and the state, takes an emphatically transnational approach as it seeks to understand the transmission of ideas on management and managerialism from the United States to Europe in the postwar period; this is in a similarly vein to the transnational concerns Hobsbawm brought to the fore in The Age of Revolution. And to understand the relationship between consultancy and the state requires an appreciation of the economic and social trends and forces at play as Hobsbawm achieved in his work; not the mere machinations of political elites.

Evans, in responding to a question from a full floor, responded that Hobsbawm’s legacy was hard to pin down because it was so diffuse and general. It is precisely this diffusion which is so impressive – it can be seen in the multidisciplinary nature of current historical research, in the recognition of the importance of more than just policy and diplomacy in historical inquiry, and in the shift to the scientific and analytical method, away from narrative history. Hobsbawm’s legacy as a “Marxist historian” is huge, but it is his influence on history as a discipline which I feel even more keenly.

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Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?

This post was contributed by Dr Barbara Zollner, lecturer in Middle East Politics, Department of Politics. Here Dr Zollner offers an insight into issues to be discussed at a public colloquium at Birkbeck (“Five years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?”) on Friday 10 June. The colloquium is run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research

‘There is no freedom when you are in fear’; so goes the title strip of the song Akher Okhneya (Last Song) by the Egyptian music-group Cairokee. The rap, which is shot on a deserted railway-line in Cairo, echoes the feelings of many young Egyptians. The mass-movement against authoritarianism in Middle Eastern countries, commonly known as the Arab Spring, gave hope to their call for political and personal freedom.

Thousands joined the protest, but subsequently many saw themselves excluded from democracy-building. Fewer continue to dream of revolution today. The view of these shabab (literally, young people, but usually refers to the Tahrir movement) is that Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood ‘hijacked’ the prospect of political change. This led them to side with the Tamarrod movement against President Mursi, which in turn opened the door for al-Sisi’s military coup.

Now, five years after their Arab Spring, Egypt faces another authoritarian military regime under President al-Sisi that uses nationalist overtones to crush any social movement, any contentious politics, any dissent.

‘The beneficiary is the one who controls you, the one who’s making you passive, who’s dictating you where to go, the one who’s predominating you. They imprisoned you inside your mind, the bars are your fear. You are afraid to think free, because you are afraid they might catch you.’ Cairokee, Akher Oghniya

 

The future of democracy looks bleak

Egypt, although an obvious case, is not the only example that the hopes associated with the Arab Spring are crushed by new authoritarianism, civil war, ethnic and sectarian strife. All over the Middle East, whether in Gulf oil-monarchies, eastern-Mediterranean and north-African republics (with perhaps Tunisia as a remarkable exception) and even in constitutional monarchies, the future of democracy looks rather bleak.

Within this turmoil, social movements (SM) are severely restrained in their activities, yet they continue to shout HURIYYA – FREEDOM. It is these movements, that continue a struggle for political reform across the Middle East, that are the focal point for a one day colloquium at Birkbeck.

Despite considerable interest in the current regional crisis, there is surprisingly little systematic research on the responsibility of SMs in successful or indeed failed democratic transitions. The short period of the Arab Spring provides rich material to explore this theme. It allows us to analyse, compare and theorise on specific empirical cases, including Islamist and secular movements that depart from the mainstream focus.

Questions arise such as whether and, if so, to what extent, SMs are responsible for the failure of democratic transition in the Middle East. Moreover, what happened to SMs and SMOs five years after the Arab Spring? Did they simply implode or did they reconfigure their political activism, potentially even turning towards violence?

The one-day colloquium intends to explore these issues. It seeks to bring together Middle East experts with an interest in contentious politics to study how these relate to processes of fundamental political change such as democratic transition, civil war, the rise of extremist movements and counter-revolutions.

“5 years after the Arab Spring: The Implosion of Social Movements?” – a one day Colloquium, run by Birkbeck Institute for Social Research, will be held at Birkbeck on Friday 10 June.

Book on to the colloquium and view the full programme here

Find out more

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