Coming of age stories : now and then

Text of a talk given to Birkbeck College Department of Literature June 2016

Introduction: the youth question then and now

In this talk I am going to be taking a line of thought for a walk in two directions at once. I will stepping back from the present, to   retrace an argument  about the youth question which I first articulated in the late 1960’s and 70’s  at a time when Mods,Rockers  and Skinheads, Beats and Hippies were highly visible signs  of a deeper  shift in the tectonic plates of the British class  system. The emergence of these youth cultures also signaled the fact that  the  fixed positions of gender and  generation which had hitherto signposted the key stages of growing up as a boy or a girl, were becoming much more fluid and negotiable, though  with a very  different impact  on each side of the class tracks. New codes of masculinity and femininity were becoming  available to middle class adolescents en route to university, whilst  their working class peers in transit from school to work found that  patriarchal values were  becoming  increasingly dysfunctional as the masculinist culture of manual labourism  went into decline and  feminized forms of  service economy took its place.
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I want to go back to that conjuncture, not in order to debunk or deconstruct yet again the mythology of a sixties youth revolution ( let along burden you with my own memories of it), but to consider in what way that moment, and its spectacular forms of dis-orientation comes back to haunt  us  now when the boom years have imploded , and the expectation that the economy will continue to grow year on year, and that life for each generation , whatever the class background, would go on getting better  than its predecessor ,  when that principle of hope was suddenly evaporated for everyone except the super rich and those who had a fast track into the professional salariat. Of course the abrupt  transition from  New Labour and carnival capitalism to austerity politics took place in very different circumstances from the 1960’s when the long post war and its austerity regime collapsed before the onslaught of hip consumer capitalism, but in both conjunctures  the life- historical narratives  that hitherto connected biographical trajectories  to sedimented structures of family, work and community life became de-stabilised.

Just to remind ourselbves , briefly,In the 1960’s and 70’s Britain  was  experiencing the first major wave of de-industrialisation , driven first by Wilson’s white hot technological revolution  and then by Thatcher’s deregulation of the labour and housing markets; it was the beginning of the end for smokestack industries, and also for  life time jobs and  social housing; inevitably this destabilized the  customary  transitions  to adulthood  for those boys and girls who were continuing to grow up working class. Youth training schemes were hastily created to replace the old apprenticeship system although no amount of social and life skills dented structural youth unemployment in the old industrial areas. Sociologists began to talk about frozen, broken, deferred or extended youth transitions. There was also much excited talk of ‘ ‘embourgeoisement’,  of a new generation of working class youth abandoning collective aspirations embedded in strong community and family ties, in favour of more individualistic  pleasures and pursuits,  especially the instant gratifications  offered by commercialized youth culture. The rituals of  courtship played out in the dance hall  and cinema were supposedly being swept aside by the frenzied promiscuities of the coffee bar and disco where going steady meant dating the same person two weeks running . Meanwhile on other side of the tracks the growth of the global knowledge economy and the  expansion of higher education meant that studenthood was becoming stabilized as an extended adolescent moratorium and a  platform of middle class aspiration for many more young people. For the fortunate few who passed their 11 plus, social mobility, the transition from a working class to a middle class life course became a central part of their coming of age story.

From the 1960’s onwards  then the cultural and institutional  links  which connected  growing  up, working and class into something like a coherent and normative narrative were becoming more complicated, more subject to challenge and revision . And  moving forward from the past to the present, ,something very similar is happening today, to what has become known as ‘generation X (of Generation Rent)’, the cohort of young people for whom  the customary markers of maturity – a secure job, a steady relationship, an affordable  place to live have become chimera. Some may look enviously over their shoulders at  what they imagine to be the more stable and accessible opportunity structures enjoyed by their parents, the post war baby boomers, some of whom may indeed have got themselves well paid jobs and pensions in economic sectors still protected by unionization,  or got their feet on  the property  ladder through the sale of their council homes , or benefitted from generous student grants, and moved up a rung or two in the social ladder.  But for Generation Rent, the pathways to these once promised lands are no longer so apparent, the waypoints are no longer stable  co-cordinates of some normative process of development . Once again sociologists are talking about fractured or frozen transitions, of a generation coming up well short of its own expectations, of young people  feeling trapped in the foreclosures of an aspirational discourse which is a  hollow mockery of  the ideals of equal opportunity and social justice that their parents and grandparents  grew up with and took for granted.

So if  I am going back  to the past it is only to be able  the better to  go forward to  examine the present and its bearing on the  future; of course, this shuttling back and forth is what we all do as we continually revise and re-edit our life stories as they unfold in time and place. Unless we really get stuck in a rut, we mostly live our lives forward, though we  tell them in retrospect.  But what happens when  the  future prospect  becomes fraught with uncertainty , when lives begin to  make more hopeful sense as back projections , as attempts to reclaim the way things were once upon a time, when the past seems more full of promise than the future . We are used to thinking of that peculiar reversal as a concomitant of the cultural conservatism of old age, when there is so little to look forward to and a more limited capacity to take on change,  but we do not normally associate it with youth, not even when we imaginatively put old heads on young shoulders.

It is no coincidence that the youth question is posed most acutely in situations where an ancien regime is in its death throes, but a new order has yet to emerge, and it is here that the bildungsroman, the novel of emergence as it has been called,  comes into its own  in depicting that transitional crisis in generational terms, as, for example  in Dostoevski’s The Adolescent, whose young hero comes of  age amidst an acute conflict between the values of old Russia embodied in the Orthodox Church and a modernising Russia open to western influence and ideas.      Today we find ourselves  once more in  what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’  , as we find ourselves trapped between a neo-liberal order which is imploding and a neo-conservative agenda which rejects globalizations but  offers no alternative to its many discontents.

The Cultures of Modernity

The main idea I want to explore in this lecture is that when youth is no longer experienced or represented as a normative and unproblematic  transition, then its very transience, in  its adolescent intensity, become congealed , objectified, and not only as a gendered commodity, something you can buy into if you have the right clothes,or listen to the right music,  but as a generic condition of ontological precarity that dramatizes a wider set of public anxieties about the direction of society . My second thesis is that  this anxiety focuses around the issue of modernity and its effects.
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In particular I want to argue that the youth question is posed in the dialectic  between two very different cultures of modernity . In what I call   proto-modernism the past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs  destinies and the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary historical  forces   relies on this  model. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante  associated with an  ancien regime of  privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of life history which  optimistically  views  the future as an improvement  on the present  which is itself an improvement on the past. Within this narrative frame youth is always  seen as a progressive force, a  principle of hope which also sustains inter-generational solidarities in struggles of long duration.

The second culture might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically elusive and transient, a moment , not a process , and one that can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit.  Within this chrono-topographic frame  the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments,  split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as  catastrophe.   History is de-composed into a series of   fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage. At one level this model  involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the sociological   imagination, as principles of hope float  free from any real  social  embedding,  encouraging  the projection of, usually dystopian, futures,  and sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.

Within the culture of retro-modernism   Youth comes to figure as  a site of chaotic synchronicity characterized by an  effervescent churn of stylistic codes, in language, dress, comportment  and musical fashion; at the same time youth is also  eternalized as a site of  profound stasis, a principle of compulsive repetition  of patterns of in/subordination  vis a vis  dominant ideologies of formation relayed  by the educational system, the law and the corporate media. In my view this oscillation between  poles of  chronic  instability  and fixity   increasingly subsumes the more familiar tension between  autonomy and dependence which you find as a characteristic of youth within the framework of proto-modernity.

I am interested in how these two sides of the youth question,  youth  represented as a dynamic and disruptive  force for progress, and as a   principle of effervescent  stasis, struggling to hold on to its frozen  assets, how  that dialectical opposition  is worked through  the coming of age story  as it  in  evolves in the 1960 and 70’s,  at the turn of the century  and today [i].

Even and especially in  the age of social media, with its whirling memes and evanescent identifications, we all need to find little life rafts  to which to attach a sense of direction, the sense of a life unfolding consequentially in place and time, and where, if needs be, we can swim against the tide of history , no longer drowning but waving.  The emergent field of ethno-biography,  the comparative study of different cultures of life story telling has as one its main tasks the discovery , or recovery  these safe anchorages of meaning. I will be concentrating on four key ethno-biographical codes which have this role: apprenticeship, inheritance, vocation and career. Each code throws a symbolic grid of periodisation and predicament over the life cycle, constituting a kind of hidden curriculum   vitae and providing an elementary plot structure for how coming of age stories are constructed and told. In what follows I shall briefly outline the distinctive features of these   codes and then give some examples of how  they  interact  and  are transformed.

From Bildungsroman to  the Modernist Fairy Tale

To give  a sense of the range of stories  we are dealing  I want to start by  considering  two passages from famous  literary coming of age stories, each of them presenting in its own idiom  a defining statement about the nature of the journey it takes us on:

The first quote is from Goethe’s  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship- which is usually regarded as the first or paradigmatic bildungsroman or novel of formation and characterizes its main protagonist in the following terms:

A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils, is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.” ― Johann Wolfgang von GoetheWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  1786
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The story ,which has as many  twists and turns as a soap opera, unfolds   as a succession of vignettes about the predicament of a young man  who is supposed to enter his father’s business   but is in love with an actress and  with the stage.  After being jilted Wilhelm  accepts his father’s suggestion to travel about collecting business debts, and sets out on his adventures , joining a  troupe of travelling actors and acrobats, where he meets Mignon, whom  Victorian commentators used to describe somewhat coyly as a ‘tomboy’  and  whom he takes under his wing. His father dies and Wilhelm inherits enough property to support himself and embark on a theatrical career . He joins a secret society of intellectuals ( the Society of the Tower who are dedicated to the pursuit of Enlightenment)  but Mignon falls ill and eventually dies. Wilhelm meets and marries Natalia,   and with marriage his so called apprenticeship and the story ends.

From the outset of its publication the novel was  interpreted as exploring  the conflict between the ideal of self determination and the imperious demands of society, the sudden rise of great expectations and lost  illusions that the bourgeois world learns to read and to accept as if it were a novel, as Franco Moretti put it in his study of the genre ( ‘Ways of the world’) .  Wilhelm’s strivings  for autonomy, his desire to pursue an artistic  calling  and adopt a bohemian life style  come up against his dependence  on the family business, and he is only able to eventually  pursue a theatrical career because he has come into his inheritance. His apprenticeship  is completed when he embraces both bourgeois morality  (marriage ) and the power of reason. It is by learning to control  his own unruly passions , through a process of what would later be called sublimation, that Wilhelm Meister becomes master of his own destiny; yet his transition from an  adolescent phase of  ‘careering about’ to a professional career,  (i.e.  a step by step progress up a ladder of incremental accreditation  and  status achieved in competition with peers) , that formation  is here subsumed  under the very different developmental logic of vocation, in which  an existential quest for an authentic mode of being in the world is driven by a purely inner directed and more self possessed  form of individualism.

But this is not the only twist to the tale. The transition  to ‘maturity’ is still made conditional on  acceptance of a patrimonial legacy  and hence falls back on the paradigm of   inheritance in which life is unfolded as  a teleology of fixed origins and destiny,  children are treated as so many chips off the old block, and adventures  are conducted by ready made heroes who may change the world, but are never themselves changed in the process.  In this  way  the  classical bildungsroman  contains and magically resolves the tensions between  different ethno-biographic codes which otherwise pull the life and the story in conflicting  directions. In the case of Wilhelm Meister this synthesis  is conducted  under the  rubric of apprenticeship , which is here more metaphor than  model of  actual development; it  has nothing to do with being indentured for seven years  to a master craftsman in loco parentis  to learn a trade  while living under his roof; here  according to the all too predictably oedipal scenario popularized in many a folk tale the young lad will revenge himself on his  oppressive old mentor by  seducing his wife  or daughter. Instead Goethe’s coming of age story produces  the adolescent as a new literary trope within the frame of proto-modernity;  the promise of boundless human progress, ambition  and productivity  represented by Wilhelm  is re-inscribed and contained within the fixed compass of a normative  life cycle  to provide a fragile anchorage of meaning  amidst the sturm und drang of  modernity. The adolescent project is thus framed within a strictly Hegelian dialectic- it is realized only in and through its suppression with the onset of marriage and maturity.

My second example is from one of the great modernist novels of adolescence, Alain Fournier’s ‘The Lost E state’ .The novel  shows what happens to the narrative when the classical bildungsroman can no longer contain the contradictions which brought it into being, when the diachronic orders of  apprenticeship or career can no long mediate between the congenital  fixities of patriarchal inheritance and the elastic  pull of inner callings or drives which lead  the young hero to abandon  any claims to a place in society in favour  of  belonging to an  imagined  community of peers. Instead of depicting coming of age as a developmental process, the modernist narrative pivots around a series of  epiphanies –  discrete and intense  moments of discovery,  of sexuality , loss of innocence , disenchantment with the adult world,  and above all emergent self- invention.

Fournier’s novel  was published in 1913, the year before he died in the trenches of the Western Front. Undoubtedly his premature death has helped to give the book its posthumous reputation; but in any case  its charms are  continually being rediscovered by successive generations of readers who are beguiled by its magical realism, its lyrical evocations of  the  French countryside, its oscillation  between the logic of fairy tale and  boys own adventure story ( Fournier was influenced as much by treasure island and kim as by the French symbolists). This extract gives a flavour of his style:

For the first time, I too am on the road to adventure, . I am looking for something still more mysterious. I’m looking for the passage that they write about in books, the one with the entrance that the prince, weary with travelling, cannot find. This is the one you find at the remotest hour of morning, long after you have forgotten that eleven o’clock is coming, or midday. And suddenly, as you part the branches in the dense undergrowth…you see something like a long, dark avenue leading to a tiny circle of light…But while I am intoxicating myself with these hopes and ideas, I suddenly come out into a clearing which turns out to be nothing more than a field’.

There is not much of a plot. It is the story of a boy finding a mysteriously beautiful house then losing it, and finding a mysteriously beautiful girl and  then losing her.the story is told  by the  15 year old son of the village teacher,  who hero worships   17  YO  ‘Grand meaulnes’  for his superior savoir faire and  this an unrequited love that dare not speak its name  gives . The title refers  both to the house that cannpt be found on any map,  and to  “estate” in the sense of a “passage of life”, which is also evanescent. Like W.H. Hudson, Fournier was haunted by the fear of boyhood coming to an end, and the singular fact is that  with the notable exception of the narrator,  all  of the  main characters, and especially Meaulnes,   refuse to grow up, they live in a dreamland, in which they can enjoy adult pleasures without assuming g adult responsibilities; they play   the great game of seduction, there are two love triangles,  but conclude, when challenged  ‘ we are just children’ .   Meaulnes is re-united with his long lost love, Yvonne, at the end of the book, only to disappear on his wedding night.  Marriage is not closure in this coming of age story but an unconsummated  desire which forecloses any resolution or happy ending.

The theme of arrested development , of youth untethered from the telos of maturity , is an important thematic in the   colonial bildingsroman, as young upper class  Englishmen are sent overseas  to  sow their wild oats amongst the natives  while   young women, carefully chaperoned  search for a suitable husband amongst the imperial batchelor class .  Hannah Arendt had a caustically precise view of  what was entailed:

‘For those who had never been able to outgrow their boyhood ideals , the colonial service was an opportunity to escape a society in which a man had to forget his youth ( and its indiscretions) if he wanted to grow up.A certain petrification of boyhood noblesse  preserved and infantilised western moral standards’  ( quoted in Jed Esty’s  ‘Unseasonable Youth’)

The modernist  novel’s  mis- en -scene of formation as  moment rather than process dramatises  the image of adolescence as  moratorium, as   a theatre for the enactment   of structural irresponsibility. But what happens when  that moratorium is subject to space time compression, when   it shrinks to vanishing point , or rather the nano second it takes to send a selfie around the world , while the affordances of ‘youth culture ’  are stretched   to reach out to both  six and sixty year olds and we are  told that we are all authors of our own lives. Under these conditions how is it possible  to keep little life rafts of meaning afloat which are built by adults but which  young people actually see some point of climbing aboard ? Welcome to the world of Young Adult Fiction.

Young Adult Fiction

Young Adult Fiction was born in  the late  1960’s, grew up  through  the 1980’ and 90’s  and has reached literary maturity    in the last decade. That at least is its own official  coming of age story . It is a case study in the creation of a genre, or perhaps rather the production and marketing of a new brand.The initiative came from publishers who became aware of a burgeoning   teen  consumer culture , teen music, teen movies , teen magazines etc  but no teen fiction as such , bridging the gap between children’s stories and adult literature. The enterprise  was also cheered on by English teachers, who were inspired by a lofty Leavisite mission to impart what David   Holbrook memorably called  in  his book ‘English for maturity’  ‘ the disciplines of the imagination’ ,  to a generation whose staple cultural diet was Marvel Comix, Jackie  and  the Sun newspaper. These teachers were looking for novels that addressed teen issues, were written in teenspeak,  and /or from a teen perspective but were nevertheless imbued with high literary values and could serve as pedagogical  bridge to the appreciation of   more serious  fare – Dostoevski’s The Adolescent , Musil’s Young Torless, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Joyce’s The Portrait of the  artist as a Young Man, Virginia Woolfs  Voyage Out, Dodie Smith’s  ‘I capture the castle’ and Rumer Godden’s  The Greengage Summer,to name only a few.
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The interpretive community that has gathered around Young Adult Fiction has been primarily concerned to create a canon –  not an easy task in a genre whose commercial viability depends on  tapping in to ephemeral youth fashions. But already  a considerable number of instant classics have emerged:      S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, Paul Zindel’s the Pigman,  Joyce Carol Oates  Big mouth Ugly girl, Laurie Halse Anderson’s  Speak , Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower  Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War,  Judy Blume’s Forever .

These books address  contemporary social  issues such as cyber bullying , homophobia, date rape, racial prejudice,  family break up, juvenile crime, gangs and street violence, poverty and social exclusions, disability ,anorexia sex abuse, drug abuse . You name a youth problem and there are several YAF novels about it.  Plots  are usually centred around an adolescent  protagonist/narrator who is directly affected by these issues and who deals with them with resilience and  resolution,  refuses to be treated as  a passive victim  and stands up for their rights often against adult authority figures. Many of these coming of age stories echo the triumph over adversity theme  so popular in  contemporary autobiographical novels and memoirs  and their immersive  quality makes it difficult for the reader to get much critical  distance  from the ideological message or ‘line’ being relayed .The reader is expected to identify  with the narrator and regard his or her as a role model.

Young Adult fiction is overwhelmingly written from a progressive, feminist and anti-racist standpoint and is a major disseminator of these values to young people. Minority ethnic, immigrant  and working class young people feature prominently and are invariably portrayed in a positive light . As part of this the explicit exploration of sexuality is not confined to  graphic  descriptions of  its mechanics but  are carefully embedded in   identity politics. The more ‘serious’ writers in this genre complicate  the politically correct coming of age story line with devices imported  from  the literary novel- polyphony, double voice, the unreliable narrator, inter-textuality, meta-fiction , in order to explore issues of ambivalence, multiple selves, intra psychic conflict  and generally move beyond the manichaen universe  of goodies and baddies . Essentially they are attempting to re-invent the bildungsroman in  a post modern idiom.

However it is important to note what is missing from these story lines. Marriage and Profession are not on the  horizon of possibilities. There is a lot of careering about, but career is not a realistic opportunity structure with which the protagonists are dramatically engaged. There is a lot about dating rituals and peer pressure, but courtship ( or even going steady) as a form of sexual apprenticeship is conspicuous   by its absence. Inheritance in its widest sense as a transmission of social, cultural and intellectual capital between the generations,  only appears under a negative sign – through symbolic acts of disinheritance either  by parents or  children, while the notion that biology is destiny ,or blood will out, such a important theme in the Victorian bildungsroman , especially those stories which deal with issues of adoption, illegitimacy and the family romance, is just not in the YAF script. Vocation in contrast is a  very  strong narrative thread, in the form of quests for authenticity and identity ; however the interiority being explored here is structured around largely narcissistic concerns- the creation of an ideal self, rather than the pursuit of an ego ideal , which in the classical novel of formation  usually involves some kind of  heroic  self- sacrifice in the pursuit of some Great Cause.

One of the most interesting YAF novels I have come across is Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan (2010) who are both seasoned contributors to  the genre. This coming of age story takes the form of  a dialogue between a gay teenager and his straight alter ego  (also called Will Grayson)  conducted largely  in texting  speak. It deals with the perils and pleasure of  on-line friendships, cyber bullying and sexual identification. At one point  in the dialogue,  the figure of Schrödinger’s cat is introduced  in a discussion about whether it is possible hypothetically to be  both alive and dead at the same time.  The two Will Graysons conclude that all the things we keep hidden in sealed boxes are both alive and dead until we open them  and that it is important to  take risks – if you don’t open the box you will never find out what’s in it. Thats the moral of this particular story.

However the Pandora’s box of  adolescent identity politics may not reveal its secrets  quite so easily because there remains a radical disjuncture between the official maps of growing up and the actually territories of experience which constitute young people’s horizons of possibility. Explore that gap is perhaps  the main raison’d’etre of YAF. One of the characters   tiny, who  is both very large and very gay, and  befriends  both Will Grayson’s  puts it like this ( Gay Will responds):

tiny : there is this word someone once taught me : weltschmerz.its the depression you feel when the world as it is does not line up with the world you think it should be . I live in a  big goddamned weltschmerz ocean, you know? and so do you and so does everyone else. Because everyone thinks it should be possible just to keep falling  and falling forever, to feel the rush of air on your face, as you fall, that air pulling your face into a brilliant goddamned smile.

And i think :no. Seriously.no.

Because i have spent my life falling, not the kind tiny’s talking about.he is  talking about love. i’m talking about life.in my kind of falling ,there’s no landing, there’s only hitting the ground. Hard. dead, or wanting to be dead, so the whole time you’re falling it’s the worst feeling in the world because you feel you have no control over it , because you know how it ends.

I’don’t want to fall .all i want to do is stand on solid ground

The trope of falling is undoubtedly  derived from the myth of Icarus,  that cautionary tale about adolescent hubris , in  which youthful   ambition  takes flight and in its extasis  does not heed the father’s interdict , so Icarus    flies too near the sun , the wax on his wings melts and  he plunges to  his death in the indifferent ocean below. How then are we to read Will Grayson’s desire to stand on terra firma, when the world is changing under his feet and everything that was solid is melting into air,  as  Marx  famously described the condition of capitalist modernity. In my view  what we have here  is not just an echo of the familiar  injunction  to ‘stand on your own two feet’  which has become the mantra of  neo-liberal individualism, it is not about the desire for mastery over self and/or others, in order to find ones place in society  which lies at the heart of the classical bildungsroman , nor to cling on to what  you  already have  , in the fragile estate of an adolescent dreamworld;  rather it stands for  an ambition  to discover a sound footing  on which to formulate realistic principle of hope for the future at a time when daring to hope for a better world , a decent place to live ,a secure and satisfying job, and social acceptance   is an increasingly  risky business for many young people ,while for those who do not make it there are no soft landings .As for weltschmerz,, world weariness is usually reserved for those who have been around a long time, and are  sickened by public hypocrisy  ; it  is staple of romantic literature from Jean Paul, who first coined the term,  to Herman Hesse  but here it is updated and given a fresh edge in describing  adolescent disenchantment with  an adult world which has failed to deliver on its promises.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson is , of course, a kind of coming out story, and lets remember that the coming out story is   a key instance of the contemporary coming of age story. The disclosure and affirmation of adolescent  gay identity , whether to parents, or friends , has consolidated into a distinctive narrative form , a sub-genre , with its own  special protocols: the emergence from a state of alienation and darkness ( in the closet) to a . , and  is widely broadcast on You Tube and other social media. As such it offers  a rite of passage into the gay community and a supportive platform for the elaboration of a peer to peer pedagogy, a shared way of learning about gay culture. Contrast this with the competitive peer dating cultures of straight teenagers who only have  the school prom  as  major   rite of passage now that so many other milestones have become problematic .

This brings me to the final part of my talk, to look at what is happening to coming of age stories which are  being enacted and told  outside the literary text, in the cultures and everyday lives of working class teenagers who probably do not read Young Adult Fiction , but may draw on  the more condensed and fragmentary versions of the bildungroman to be found in films, pop songs , TV soaps,  autobiographical videos and peer group gossip circulating via social media. Given the coming of age story constitutes a distinctive literary genre, with its own history, its own set of narrative conventions about how to portray adolescence in terms of sexual awakening, relations with parents and peers,  the striving to grasp and/or  challenge  ones place in the world, how, if at all does that self conscious literary project relate to thesee fragmentary, unwritten autobiographical novels and memoirs which we all carry around in our heads and which we may or may not tell as short stories, jokes, or throwaway comments  to our children and  our friends?[ii]

Apprenticeships and Inheritances : the changing terms of growing up working class

In order to properly address this question  we need to take one step back , to put  current  changes in historical  context ;  we have to look at what has been happening to ethno-biographical codes in the long  and uneven transition from industrial fordism to post industrial  capitalism . And I want to focus in particular on the history of apprenticeship in this transition, its uncoupling from the life historical grid of inheritance and its changing relation to the codes of vocation and career since .

Until the advent of  the age of machinofacture  the vast majority of people in western societies learnt to labour through mimetic forms of apprenticeship. In the phase of small workshop production, the implements of labour were often thought of as a kind of prosthetic extension of bodily skill, moulded by the customary usages of handicraft . Co-ordinated actions of hand, ear, and eye were initially privileged over other parts or techniques of the body as the medium of apprenticeship; for the early labour aristocracy skill was a function of this specialised dexterity, embodied in a  patrimony of skill that was in your blood and bones and transmitted mimetically from generation to generation.  Growing up to be skilled always entailed an apprenticeship to this kind of inheritance  which also conveyed a privileged social position as the backbone of the nation.
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Those who laboured primarily with their shoulders, backs, thighs genitals or feet were, in contrast, treated as an inferior, ‘species specific’ type of unskilled worker, almost a ‘race apart’. This distinction, which took on moral as well as economic overtones in the Victorian period was found in many trades and industries. There is the contrast between stevedores and dockers, actresses and prostitutes, the hewers and lumpers of coal. Within the ‘race apart’, the musculatures of labour were transvalued through their masculinisation; only as a vehicle for the assertion of virile forms of strength and endurance, (or ‘hardness’) could these otherwise abject forms of labour be invested with a sense of pride in physical prowess .

In both skilled and unskilled forms, learning to labour thus involved apprenticeship to an inheritance governed by strictly patriarchal rules. The apprenticeships that existed within women’s trades tended to be attenuated versions of the masculine forms. As for the ‘domestic’ apprenticeships served by budding housewives and mothers, here the sexual division of labour assumed its most ‘naturalised’ and emotionally-loaded form .

With the advent of industrialised  production , learning to labour continued to be an apprenticeship to an inheritance. But the terms and functions of that articulation changed. At first the new technologies of mass production were regarded as simply bigger and better hand tools. Mechanised functions were ‘naturalised’ and compared to those of the body especially in its sexual or reproductive capacities.

It is no coincidence that factory workers were called ‘hands’, but already here the relation is less one of ‘natural symbolism ‘ than a calculated metonymy, which will quickly enough become transformed into metaphor.

With the advent of fully fledged Fordism, and the accelerated trade cycle, the customary rhythms of employment in the manual trades became increasingly at odds with the tempo of mass production. Handicraft processes were marginalised and increasingly replaced by semi-skilled repetition work. As this occurred, artisanal techniques become increasingly aestheticised and/or feminised, and given a new lease of life under the sign of vocation. Morris, Ruskin and the arts and crafts movement attempted to create a vision of socialism around a return to this idealised pre-industrial body of manual labour, now reconfigured as a mimetic medium of creative self expression .

Meanwhile in the real world of mass production and consumption, the structures of imitation/emulation which governed the apprenticeships of the ‘old’ labouring body  ossified. and closed around  a culture of resistance to dilution and deskilling.

It is no coincidence that boy labour was concentrated not in manufacturing but in the distribution and servicing trades where it was confined to the lowest paid, least skilled positions. This has less to do with any real qualities or lack of them which young workers may possess, more  to do with customary practice in confining lads to the fetching and carrying of goods, the servicing of clients or customers, or lending a helping hand to the adult worker. Sometimes all three menial tasks were combined in the same job, sometimes there was a progression from one to the other, but the essential point is that boy labour was proto-domestic labour: it was modelled on women’s work in the home. This was underscored by the social relations of the workplace. The new lad was expected to make the tea, run errands, sweep up and generally serve as a skivvy to the older men, whether he was officially ‘mated’ to them or not. He was also subjected to a good deal of teasing, often of a sexual kind, designed to show him up as soft or incompetent in various ways. All this was part of the initiation of the ‘virgin’ worker, something that had to be endured in order to eventually make the grade as a fully fledged ‘workmate’. Normally this would involve the apprentice demonstrating that he was just as ‘hard’ as the older men, and, by extension, emulating their supposed sexual prowess with women.

Sexual apprenticeships in fact complemented the occupational form. In some trades the sexual initiation of the young worker was undertaken by an older woman at work, egged on by her workmates. Usually the women chosen for this task were unmarried and regarded as especially unattractive; certainly many of the initiation rites contained a definite sadistic element. In the second stage however the sexual apprentice gets his own back in exercising his new found mastery of technique over younger, preferably virgin girls (and/or through rituals that feminise younger weaker boys). Finally the sexual improver finds a steady and graduates to the phase of courtship, essentially a form of apprenticeship to marriage and the role of the family wage earner. This tripartite system is summarised in figure 1 below:

Gender Identity Narrative Occupational Identity Narrative
Initiation of virgin
boy by older woman
‘Feminisation’ of virgin worker
‘mated’ to older man
Practice of sexual mastery
over younger girls
Counter display of masculine
‘hardness’ vis-à-vis younger lads
Going steady-courtship
as apprenticeship to marriage
Making the grade as a workmate
amongst the men

Figure One: Traditional Masculine Code Of Apprenticeship: From The Youth Wage To The Family Wage

The linkage between techniques of masculinity and manual labour was thus forged through a radical disavowal of the despised quasi-feminine status assigned to male youth by the generational division of labour and its  homo-social forms. The mimetic forms of apprenticeship are split; one way they point to an imposed and ‘regressive’ identification with women’s work (and the world of childhood) and by the other route, they constitute a no less imposed but ‘progressive’ identification with men’s work (and the world of adulthood) entered through an active repudiation of everything associated with the ‘proto-domestic’. The  split is resolved through a process of more or less ritualised masquerade in which the boy is mated to : an imaginary sexual division is constructed in order to maintain a real generational one, while displacing the terms of an otherwise all too ‘Oedipal’ confrontation between the ‘old hands ‘and the noviciates whom they are training to one day replace them. It is through this mediation ( and its all too concrete practices of humiliation)  that the apprentices’ position of peripheral participation is legitimated within the real community of  homo-social practice in the workplace.
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My argument is that this tension between the codes of apprenticeship and inheritance provides a a narrative template  for a  proletarian version of the classical bildungsroman. In the oral testimonies of young workers and also in some of their written memoirs we can trace the characteristic elements : the struggle for girls to escape the matrilocal  pull of domestic apprenticeships and the great indoors, and create their own public space and time of relative feminine autonomy ; the struggle of boys against an oppressive patrimony of skill  and the counter assertion of  forms of territoriality in which masculine prides of place can be  tested and contested outside the ken and control of elders.

I have already suggested that the process of de-industrialisation  permanently destabilised this culture with very different consequences for boys and girls. The collapse of customary transition routes from school to work meant that   networks  of apprenticeship and inheritance increasingly pulled apart, and became enclosed in their own frames  of self reference. For an emergent precariat ,the links between growing up, working and class not only weakened, they were stretched  between two equally impossible poles of identification: an apprenticeship without  closure, an endless deferral of mastery, cut off from any viable inheritance; Or ,on the other side of the coming of age story,  an inheritance  uncoupled from  apprenticeship hollowed out of any substantive content, and reduced to a bio-politics of  self-referentiality and the narcissism of minor difference.

The mimetic apprenticeships of manual labour did not however entirely wither away. Some elements were subsumed in the form of shadowing, or mentoring, under the new training regimes. At the same time the  material symbols of apprenticeship/inheritance  took on a new lease of life, outside production as a source of vicarious  identification with techniques of mastery over  nature, and the labour process, over self and others,  in a kind of defiant masquerade which camouflaged real absences, losses and lacks ( for example of the father as locus of  really useful knowledge). In this way, some of the more hidden injuries  inflicted by the deskilling/reschooling of labour were neutralised, either by parodying their effect on others, or by projecting an immaculate body image ‘hardened’ by the rigours of manual labour as a new   ego and peer group ideal  entirely disconnected from the back breaking drudgery of  the actual work process.

Through this process of re-embodiment, the productive capacities of disciplined labour are symbolically reclaimed, albeit in a displaced form . In dance, in sport and especially in the more physically punishing kinds of athleticism, the element of degradation in manual labour is transformed into a principle of self gratification. Or to put it another way submission to physical self discipline becomes the  body’s own labour of love.

Especially amongst those who could not gain entry to the new post Fordist work  regimes , certain types of traditional manual work took on a hyper-inflationary value, not so much because of skill or wage level, but because they required or permitted the public display of masculinities which had otherwise become redundant. Certain types – the building worker, the trucker, the rigger, the cowboy, the steel erector, the miner – are repackaged for homeboy consumption. In Country and Western music, in buddy movies, in soft porn magazines and comics, in corporate advertising, in TV serials, their praises are sung, often with strongly homoerotic overtones. A new kind of bildungsroman is condensed in portrayals of these figures, centred on an ever more macho,phallocentric drama of  self-discovery ; they are celebrated for being ruggedly individualistic, and for restoring a  collective sense of  male fraternity and pride, not as a race part, but as the backbone of a nation that fears it has gone soft.

But what about all those working class  boys who reject these ‘ideal types’ of manual labour as sites of masculine identification because they no longer correspond to anyone they could actually become? When apprenticeship is only to and from itself youth ceases to be merely a staging post to  adulthood , and becomes instead  an allegory of arrested development . In this vacuum performative psycho-dramas around the mastery of   quasi ‘feminine’ techniques of impression management and masquerade (and their masculinist disavowal)  take centre stage and provide a narrative template for a  retro-modernist version of the coming of age story   centred on the just- in- time production of the self and the negotiation of peer identities around issues of recognition and respect.

So  how does this shift actually work its way through individual  adolescents coming of age stories?

In the final section I will draw on some of my work with young people growing up in East London , firstly in the 1980’s  in a  project called ‘Leaver’s Believers’  which explored transitions from  school  with a group of early leavers (16 year olds), and secondly from a project fifteen years later with a similar age group on the Isle of Dogs. Both projects used photography, video walk about, art work ,  guided phantasy story making and life journey mapping as a means of exploring coming of age issues.

 

Conclusion :     

The  life world Generation X Y Z are having to learn  to  find their way about  is one in which there are no fixed or  easily  mappable  co-ordinates , few  readily accessible waypoints, and no internal sat nav to guide them to whatever destination is indicated by their personal dispositions. For many young people the familiar transitions, from school to work, from working class to middle class, from  childhood to adulthood , or from youth to age seem  no longer so attainable  or in some cases even desireable as  they were for their parents and grandparents; in particular the long forced march from the polymorphous perversity of infantile sexuality , through oral, anal and genital erogeny to the promised land of heterosexual coupledom , a trajectory Freud associated with the civilising process and its discontents  seems today more like an ancient folk tale   than a realistic description of any viable process of contemporary formation  . In any case the diachronic orders of apprenticeship and career no longer supply  milestones  or markers of maturity, associated with increments  of skill or status; equally,neither vocation nor inheritance  can provide a viable road map to coming of age .The endless quest for an ideal self  offers no more hope of this than the arrested development entailed in simply following in your parent’s footsteps and assuming their  symbolic legacy.  Meanwhile the quantified self, measuring out  life in coffee spoons, or the number of likes  or followers accumulated on social media is too impoverished to give meaning and direction to a life time. The peculiar burden of representation which youth has to bear today, is to signify  with peculiar intensity a general crisis  experienced  across the  generations. This crisis  turns on the radical disconnect between the institutional scaffolding of  political, economic and cultural life which is in a  state of permanent transformation an flux, and the chronic insecurities  of everyday life which extend from childhood to old age , and trap people in a permanent hiatus between a better past to  which  there is no return and a worse future from which they anyway excluded.

Perhaps it is because so many of the old transitions are in abeyance for so many people  that perhaps  most difficult  transition of all ,  from  a  male to female body, or vice versa has become  so significant, and  created a platform for so much public debate  about the moral anatomy of our society . This is not just about  a new post modern sense of  fluid identity ,  which rejects fixity and  binarisms of every kind ( whether of class, age, ethnicity or  sex); transitioning  has become a quasi- natural symbol for the mismatch so many people feel between  inherited  identities that are ascribed or imposed and  the call of  who and what we feel we really want to become. Transitioning is a transgressive model  of all the transitions we would like but are  unable to make.  If the youth question is an allegory of a split modernity, then ‘trans’ is an allegory of its Other Scene – the other class, other race, other generation, other sex within the self –  whose disavowal makes us strangers to ourselves, and creates  the Great Fear of The Other whose consequences for the body politic we have just seen in the referendum debate.  The only hopeful sign in the otherwise disastrous outcome is that young people  overwhelmingly rejected the various ‘project fears’ on offer, on both sides of the debate  and instead voted for a principle of hope . Perhaps here is a possible  script for a coming of age story in which  exploration of the Unknown once more becomes  central  to the plot .

 

FURTHER READING

Classical and Modernist Bildungsroman

Van Goethe Wilhelm Meister : an apprenticeship

Charles Dickens   Great Expectations

Charlotte Bronte  Jane Eyre

Dostoevski  The Adolescent

Rudyard Kipling   Kim

Robert Musil   Young Torless

Franz Wedekind  Spring Awakening

James Joyce  the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Virginia Woolf The Voyage Out

Dodie Smith  I Capture the Castle

Rumer Godden  The Greengage Summer

Alain Fournier  The Lost Estate

J.D.Salinger  Catcher in the Rye

Alberto Moravia  Two Adolescents

 

Young Adult Fiction

Robert Cormier  The Chocolate War (1985)

Paul Zindel The Pigman and me (1991)

Stephen Chbosky The Perks of being a Wallflower  (1999)

Laurie Halse Anderson  Speak (2001)

S.E. Hinton  The Outsiders (2002)

Joyce Carol Oates  Big Mouth and Ugly Girl (2002)

Judy Blume Forever (2005)

Jonathon Green and David Levithan  Will Grayson,Will Grayson (2010)

 

Literary  Commentaries

Marthe Roberts  The Origins of the Novel  (1964)

Elizabeth Abel et al ( eds) The Voyage In: fictions of female development (1983)

Mikhail Bakhtin  Speech genres and other late essays (1986)

Franco Moretti  The  Way of the world: the bildungsroman in European Culture  (1987)

Tzvetan Todorov    Genres in discourse (1990)

Roberta Trites  Disturbing the Universe: power and repression in adolescent literature  (2000)

Jed Esty  Unseasonable Youth :modernism, colonialism and the fiction of development (2012)

 

Youth history, sociology and cultural studies

David Robins and Phil Cohen  Knuckle sandwich: growing up in the working class city (1978)

Paul Willis  Learning to Labour: how working class boys get working class jobs  (1978)

Angie McRobbie and Mica Nava (eds)  Gender and Generation (1982)

Robert Hollands  The LongTransition: class, culture and youth training (1990)

Angie McRobbie   Feminism and Youth Culture:from Jackie to Just Seventeen (1991)

Patrick Ainley   and Helen Rainbird (eds)  Apprenticeship : towards a new paradigm of learning (1992)

August Mitterauer A History of Youth (1994)

Les Back New Ethnicities and   Racisms in Young Lives  (1996)

Phil Cohen Rethinking the Youth Question: education, labour and cultural studies  (1998)

Linda Mac Dowell Redundant Masculinities: employment change and white working class youth (2003)

Gillian Evans  Educational  failure and white working class children in Britain (2006)

Jennifer Silva   Coming Up Short  :working class adulthood in an age of uncertainty (2013)

 

END NOTES

[i] In puzzling such  conundra I have found the late work of Mikhail Bakhtin and his disciple  Tzvetan Todorov to be most illuminating;  Bakhtin for his concept of chronotope, the tropes of time and place which organize the armature of the narrative , a concept which he used to great effect in developing a historical typology of the novel in his essay on the Bildungsroman;   Todorov for his re-embedding  of discoursive genres not only  in the social and economic relations of their production but in his focus on the existential  structures which they offer to particular speech communities to articulate where they imagine they are coming from and going to.

[ii] This is the starting point for a piece of research I am hoping to carry out and which is both a new departure for me in that it is combining ethnography with methods of literary and narrative analysis,  as well as revisiting old ground in terms of youth culture .  The study I am proposing will  consider, compare and contrast  the coming of age stories of three generations , firstly those of my age , whose formative experiences were in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, secondly  those whose teenage years  spanned the transition from Thatcherism to New Labour, and finally those whose adolescence coincided with the  recession and its aftermath . The people whose stories  I plan to record, will be drawn from families in the East End of London and from an ex-industrial area of Newcastle-on Tyne; their life stories will  thus encompass a rich  variety of experience , of social and geographical mobility , or immobility, of  many ups and downs  or relative stability, of strong bonds of kinship, and friendship, or  social isolation, of active community engagement or withdrawal into private areas  of  fulfillment. Of course  I am interested in how these different patterns of experience relate  to issues of race and class, gender and generation, but this will not be  a sociological study . I am more concerned to create a cartography of  different idioms or genres of life story telling, and more specifically coming of age stories, focusing on their narrative forms or generative grammars , rather than simply doing a thematic or content analysis.

Archive that,Comrade

Legacy politics and the ruses of remembrance

 Foreword 

Not so long ago I had the experience of mentoring a young German student who was intensely curious about British culture and society and what had shaped it in the second half of the 20th century. He plied me with questions like ‘What was it like before Mrs Thatcher?’. ‘How does the situation of gay people today compare  with what it was like in the 1960’s’. ‘When did Damien Hirst  first become  famous?’ ‘How did people in this country respond to the fall of the Berlin Wall?’ ‘Have British people always not liked immigrants?’ I did not always find it easy to answer him without falling into what Marx called ‘dumb generalities’, but I did my best to point him in the direction of where the answers might be found. Quite often I found myself telling  him stories about my own political involvements when I was his age, in the 1960’s. After one such episode , he turned to me and said ‘Dude, you know, you’re  a real archivist!’  I did’nt know whether to be flattered or to read it as a windup up cum  put down.   But it became apparent that he meant it as a genuine compliment. After all  he came from a society which had tried to get  a whole post war generation to forget about its immediate past, and where opening  up the state archives revealed all kinds of  previously hidden atrocities.
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It is, of course, very gratifying  to be asked about one’s history by someone much younger who is as interested in its political as its personal dimensions. Even the so called ‘selfie’ generation occasionally comes out of its reverie, looks about it and fastens on some figure that can tell  once- upon- a -time stories about what the world was like before it was born. Still    I had never considered myself to be a archivist. I had a small collection of magazines, posters  and other  ephemera from the period 1965-75 when I was active in the London underground scene, but it never occurred to me that anyone would call it an archive, or be interested in what it contained,. But then, I reflected, nowadays everyone is an archivist of some sort; in reaction to living in a throwaway society people collect all manner of things,  there is no object too trivial  to be invested with  special meaning  as a collectible. Scavenging for scraps of  memory  in the detritus of consumerism is the stuff material dreams are now made of.

When I was invited to  contribute some material to the  MayDay Rooms archive  about the London Street Commune movement in which I was involved in 1969/70,  it prompted me to think in more general terms about the  nature of the archive and its relation to contemporary memory politics.  This  pamphlet explores some of the wider issues  of archival practice  which arise for a project which has a definite political agenda but which also aspires to provide an open access  platform for political dialogue and democratic debate.   These reflections  are informed  by the experience of writing a memoir which includes an account of the occupation of 144 Piccadilly, an event which hit the world’s headlines for ten days in July 1969. I consider the political legacy of 1960’s counter culture  and as a postscript  have annotated the material  deposited in the MayDay Rooms archive. My personal perspective on memory politics has also been profoundly shaped by the experience of having to  deliver a funeral eulogy for  my adoptive soon  who died at the age of 33 from alcoholism. In an appendix I have applied  the general approach I am advocating  to a proposal for creating an alternative form of adoption archive.

I would like to thank Iain Boal and the MayDay Rooms for convening the deposition event and all those friends and comrades who attended for their contributions, which I have drawn on extensively in revising the text of the talk for publication. Thanks also to Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves, the publisher of my memoir,  for inviting me to talk at a conference of trade union and community activists in Nottingham, which first prompted these deliberations.

Archive Fever: coming in from the cold?

We should not be deceived into thinking that heritage is an acquisition, a possession that grows and solidifies; rather it is an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures  and heterogeneous things that threaten the  fragile inheritance from within or underneath- Michael Foucault – The Archaeology of Knowledge

As every reader of Heidegger or an English dictionary knows  the old word ‘thing’ or ‘ding’ originally meant a certain type of assembly. The point of reviving this old notion of assembly in a contemporary notion of assemblage, is that we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible  but because we are  brought together by divisive matters of concern into some neutral isolated place in order to arrive at some sort of provisional makeshift (dis)agreement. Bruno Latour – From Realpolitik to ding politik or how to make things public.
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Here we have two takes on the archive from very different perspectives on the politics of knowledge, but  which converge on a single idea – that the role of the living archive is to provide a public space of deliberation and debate, an alternative kind of parliament, in which traditions can be unsettled, ideologies contested, the familiar history defamiliarised; this archive is a way of bringing things together in order to take their existing associations apart. My question is this:  does this actually require that the archive occupy an isolated neutral space? Can it also  be an intervention which sets up new, and critically engaged forms of dialogue, within a political geography  in which the old terms of Left and Right, centre and periphery are shifting under our feet?

Secondly  does the process of archival reframing not also require a moment to which it is dialectically related and even opposed – a moment of conservation, or consolidation, a re-concentration  of what  has been dis-assembled and dispersed? How does this dialectic play out in actual strategies of collection and curation and what kind of memory politics do these strategies imply or articulate?

My interest in these questions goes back to a visit to a museum in East Berlin in 1980; the museum portended to tell the story of the creation of the GDR as a bulwark of socialism in the front line of the cold war. As you entered the large portico you were confronted with a steam locomotive, resplendent in the colours of the GDR. Children were enjoying  climbing into cab and imagining themselves driving it down the tracks. But where did these imaginary tracks lead?. If you looked closely at the base of engine you could read a small plaque which announced that this was one of trains which had hauled bricks to help build the Berlin Wall, constructed entirely with volunteer labour, workers  who were defending  socialism  against its enemies. A story then of East Berliners enthusiastically volunteering to cut themselves off from their families and friends in West Berlin, and to live in an open prison from which many of them died trying to escape. So here we had an artefact transformed into an actant in a narrative which its presence authorises and which is in fact a piece of state propaganda. The very materiality of the exhibit provides its alibi as a mute witness to the fabrication of a historical untruth. Another way to put this is to say that the object is falsified by what  it made to verify.

About ten years later I revisited Berlin in very different circumstances.The Wall had fallen and the Museum of Transcendental Materialism, as I nicknamed it, was closed. I had been invited to speak at a conference about racism  organised by the reconstituted Socialist Unity Party which had ruled the old GDR and was now trying to reinvent itself as a social democratic party carrying the banner for the ‘Ossies’ who were finding themselves second class citizens in the new united Germany. The conference  was mainly attended by party delegates,sad looking middle aged men wearing grey raincoats who had been part of the old nomenklatura but now found themselves unemployed. One of them, who  adopted me and I got to know quite well, had been a member of the Stasi;  Max confessed that the worst thing about what had happened was not that he  had become an object of general opprobrium but he had been forced to recognise that  his whole life had been wasted in pursuit of what turned out to be a nightmare. The opening of the Stasi archives had revealed just how deeply embedded the state surveillance system had been and the large numbers of citizens who had collaborated with it, whether out of fear or a genuine sense of patriotic duty.  Like many of his fellow  militants, Max had been a member of the Kamfgruppen der Arbeiterclasse, the  GDR’s ideological shock troops, and like them he had volunteered  to help build the Wall. To prove his change of heart he offered me a small fragment of brightly graffittoed  stone which he assured me he had personally chipped   out of the Wall. When I got back to my hotel  I compared it with another piece of the Wall  I had acquired from a postcard issued to celebrate  the events of 1989. It was also grafittoed, but it was of quite different composition. Perhaps it was from a different part of the Wall? Or was it possible that one of  these stones was a fake? After the fall of the Wall tens of thousands of people  went hunting for souvenirs, and a whole export industry grew up distributing  fragments as holy reliquaries of this historical moment  around the world. Once the remains of the Wall were protected, some East Berliners, desperate to cash in, began  to  ‘manufacture’ this little bit of history  in their own back yards.

There are two  conclusions to be drawn from this experience which are the starting points for the reflections that follow. The first is that that the knowledge power of the archive and the museum once  in the hands of the state is absolute, even if it is not directly employed as an instrument of propaganda.It can be a means of  censorship and forgetting as well  as remembrance.  Today, with the growing datification of every aspect of our interaction with the State and the market, as citizens and consumers we find that we are unwitting  and often unwilling accomplices in a vast operation  to monitor, record  and extract information about even the most intimate aspects of  our everyday lives; our computers and mobile devices leak geolocated data  about our  life style patterns, sexual preferences, social networks and journeys around town. If the Benthamite panopticon was the model of surveillance and regulation in early capitalist society, the virtual archive is the model of  the ‘control society’ of late modernity.

The second point stands against the first; it  is that the  significance of objects cannot be secured  by their mode of production or material provenance alone. Under hypnosis a bricklayer can  remember and distinguish between every single brick he has laid in the previous week, according to its texture and other features. Even mass produced objects have a singularity of use not  reducible to their social typification  so that any attempt to enclose their meaning  within a totalising frame of reference is doomed to failure. There is no doubt which of my pieces of the Berlin Wall tells the more interesting story; even if Max’s gift turned out be a fake and was ‘hand made’, the narrative   it served to prompt verifies its authenticity for the same reason  that makes its provenance undecidable. This uncoupling of provenance and meaning is the challenge of interpretation  As he said to me, with a slight twinkle in his eye, as he finished the story and pressed the precious stone into my hand : ‘archive that comrade!’

Counter-culture : then and now

The second prompt for these remarks was being asked recently to give a talk about my memoir ’Reading Room Only’  to a conference in Nottingham. The conference was organised by Five Leaves who had published the book; it brought together local  trade union  and community activists to debate the question: is there still a working class? No doubt Five Leaves hoped that the talk would help promote the book and sell more copies. This put me in something of a quandary: what on earth could a book that was about growing up in a middle class family in Bloomsbury during and after the second world war, about a classical education and the culture of the public school, about dropping out of Cambridge and running away to join  the counter culture of the sixties,and most all about  collecting, stealing, reading and writing books,  what on earth could such a text  have to say to a meeting of mainly working class activists, most of whom had not even been born in 1969?

The talk had been billed,as revisiting the 60’s. Along with a few choice quotes from the text,  the blurb raised expectations of a trip down memory lane, perhaps a debunking of the myth of the youth revolution plus a graphic account of my night of passion with Allen Ginsberg – something  which sadly never happened, not for lack of enthusiasm on his part, but an excess of prudery on mine.
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In any case the circumstances in which I came to write the memoir were such as to ensure that these expectations could not possibly be fulfilled. It  was an attempt to write myself out of a very dark and dangerous place in my head, in Italo Calvino’s words ‘to find that which in the inferno, is not inferno, and give it space and make it endure’. In that,  the book, or at least its writing, was successful. It was also an attempt to integrate a part of my life that had become split off and not exactly repressed but marginalised and certainly did not feature  in my official curriculum vitae. Apart from a few old friends, no-one whom I met and worked with as a researcher in the Academy knew of my past as Doctor John, the notorious night tripper, hippy squatter  and infamous folk devil of 144 Piccadilly. However Reading Room Only  is not a political memoir,  at least not in the conventional sense;  it does not rehearse or try to re-open  the political or intellectual debates of the 60’s, it does not try to settle old scores. It could be regarded as an account of a certain process of political socialisation, of radicalisation,  as the public school rebel evolves  into the counter cultural provocateur, thence into a street activist and finally a radical academic. It is anyway not always easy to detect the undertow of influences  even in retrospect. A few years ago I was a member of a reminiscence group of 60’s radicals, drawn from both Europe and the Americas, in which we tried, through comparing our life stories, to detect some common patterns or strands in our various engagements which ranged  from armed struggle to  cultural avant gardism, from feminism  to internationalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly the differences in our experiences were easier to articulate than our commonalities.

Yet  even as I tried to concentrate my talk in Nottingham  on the  personal and political history, I still had to ask myself why should anybody  who is politically active today  bother about what happened, or didn’t happen all those years ago? Supposing for a moment that there is more to this particular conjuncture than could be retrieved through reminiscence work with groups of ageing hippies or retired left wing academics, what possible significance could  flower power, or the student protests against the Vietnam war  have for ’generation rent’? What could the children of post war affluence, the never- had –it- so- good generation of baby boomers  for whom precarity was an ideological stance or conjunctural  life style choice have to say to the children of austerity,the never- had- it- so- bad generation for whom precarity is a structural condition of their existence?.

The short answer has to be  that the counter culture, in its many manifestations, might  be seen as prefigurative of much of what was to come, and its legacy is still with us; it is still a tacit  reference point, both negative and  positive, for much contemporary political debate on  the Left. For some, mainly Marxists, it is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs,  the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the New Jerusalem  and  capitalism goes  cultural as well as global, and becomes hip.  The so called  youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism  and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  Sex and drugs and rock n roll  may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the  dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole  culture  of narcissism that post- fordism, and the just in time production of the self requires. Playing  it cool becomes the motto  of a whole ‘post’ generation : post modernist, post Marxist,post feminist, post human.

The other reading, which is mainly from anarchists  and the libertarian Left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular  anti-authoritarian politics, a  generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures  of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation. It is also about  an aesthetic revolt  against the  dead weight of  elite bourgeois  literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of   party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation,  anti racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do it yourself urbanism:  As such it prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.

Now clearly what we refer to rather glibly as ‘60’s counter culture’ is a complicated phenomenon,  it is made up of many different strands; it is not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically. For a start, the alternative  society mirrored the stratifications of so called straight society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the children of  actual aristocrats or plutocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, like BIT, Release  and the underground press, and then it had its foot soldiers, the young people  who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the margins.

Each reading of the counter culture tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic. Sometimes  opposed interpretations are  given to the same thing. There is also the distinct possibility that   alternative life styles  could have both progressive and reactionary aspects, could challenge  the patriarchal  bio-politics  of deferred gratification  and  be part of  what Marcuse called  the apparatus of repressive desublimation. Most of the accounts produced   about this period, in the form of memoirs, emphasise the positive, liberatory aspects, whether they concentrate on political dimension or the counter cultural. One of my motives in writing the memoir was in fact revisionist – to  insist that  the  university and the cultural industries  were not the only or even the most important sites of  social, cultural and intellectual ferment. At any rate the squatting movement and  what was happening on the streets, made its own platform of ideas and practices.

Rather than debate this in the abstract I  hope that the material I brought along to deposit  would enable  the street commune squatters movement and in particular the occupation of 144 Picaddilly  and its immediate aftermath to serve as  a concrete  test case.  Was this strange  alliance of   young  dossers or rough sleepers, and teenage runaways  with  beats, hippies, bohemians and radical students  a prefiguration of  what Hardt and Negri have called ’the multitude’,  a disparate assembly of those living a precarious existence on the margins of capitalism and occupying unregulated  pop up  niches in the fabric of the city.   Or was it  merely a  parody of a   riotous mob confined to a building, making a media  spectacle of themselves and distracting attention away from the real political issues of the day which were to do  with  the de-industrialisation of Britain, the beginning of the end of labourism, and of the white manual working class as a major and progressive historical force?

The End of Historicism ?  Memory politics, the dialectic of generations and ‘new times’.

To pose the question in this way, to see the counter culture or the  LSC as in some way prefigurative, to reference Hardt and Negri  in this context, is to re-describe  the past in the language  of  present concerns. Of course that is what historians often do, if only to demonstrate  the continuing relevance of their research and its claim on public interest  they apply contemporary  terms and idioms   to an analysis of phenomena  to which they are entirely foreign. How much is lost and how much gained in such translation is a hot topic of  debate  amongst academic historians.

In contemporary  memory politics, the Left tends to be wedded to the idea that history always has lessons to teach us about the present and future. Political defeats, like the Miners strike of 1984 for example, should not be ignored or forgotten, because however painful, they yield important insights into how we got to be where we are now. And this is sometimes accompanied by the sentiment that there is something heroic or redemptive about a failure if it confirms the existence and overwhelming power of the ruling class. Moreover, straw clutching, which is an occupational hazard  cum therapy on the Left, can sometimes yield interesting results. The  outcome of 1984 miners strike may have been a disaster for the pit head  communities but the unlikely alliance between  the hard men of the manual working class  and the gay  rights movement, as documented in the recent film Pride, while it does not turn defeat into victory, nevertheless points towards a new way of  linking  class and identity politics that has yet to be fully realised.
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Funerals occupy a special place in the memory politics of the Left. The funerals of fallen comrades provide an occasion for the collective re-affirmation  of ideological faith, they create real and not just imagined communities of mourners around them; sometimes funerals turn into mass demonstrations in which a sense of outrage is tempered by feelings of loss; at others the slogan ‘don’t mourn, organise’ becomes the mot d’ordre, and displays of anger foreclose the experience of grief or transform it into grievance. Recently the concept of ‘active mourning’ has emerged in an attempt to find a new equilibrium between the extremes of being immobilised by loss and throwing oneself into political struggle as a manic defence against its recognition. Active mourning is about finding some kind of emotional balance between grief and anger through identification with both the victim and the cause he or she  died for.

But whether loss is acknowledged or disavowed it is not privatised; indeed in some cases  immediate family and friends can come to feel that the death of their beloved has become such a public event that it has even further separated them from their own feelings; they can no longer own the death of the person they feel  belong to them alone. Perhaps protracted campaigns launched by the next-of-kin and sustained by the desire to ensure that the victim of injustice did not die in vain are one way of pre-empting or countering  this alienation effect;  the afterblows  of a traumatic death are directed outwards to its putative cause : the brutal actions of an oppressive state, the class enemy,  corrupt or indifferent Authority, racial hatred or religious bigotry. In this way the deceased takes on a special posthumous identity intimately implicated in struggles in which they may, or may not, have actually engaged  but to which their afterlife is now dedicated. Fully fledged martyrologies, such as those of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, do however require some prior investment on the part of the movements to which they belong. Or, to take another example the  use of photographs of children injured or killed in the war zone as propaganda by the different factions in order  to demonstrate the inhumanity of their enemies  and win sympathy for their cause  may seem like a cynical manipulation, and at one level it is, but in situations where whole communities have been politically mobilised in collective self-defence, no-one’s life or death is their own.

Perhaps the most fundamental human distinction is between those who are simply deceased, whose death’s accomplishes nothing except the cessation of life, there is no-one to remember or grieve for them, and those who leave behind a substantive legacy, whether material or symbolic, and hence achieve some kind of  afterlife, whether of local or global  proportions.

This  idea  of history as an inheritance, as  something to be bequeathed by one generation to the next, whether as asset or liability remains the dominant common sense. Yet it comes up against another powerful  idea  – history as  incremental  progress, in which the  past is judged  against the present and found wanting. How much more enlightened we are today  than our Victorian or Edwardian forbears, how much less sexist, or racist! This rather  smug whiggish historicism can also be reversed – the present is  then judged from the vantage point of  the past and found to be worse – the Left mourns the worlds it has lost,  the world  of working class solidarities, brass bands, the miners Gala, industrial ballads, the impossibly close knit homogeneous communities. These two perspectives, in which past and present are used to devalue each other, are increasingly reversed into one another. For example  the vestiges of manual labour culture which remain,  wrenched out of the economic context which gave them a reason to exist, become the object of either romantic idealisation, patronising judgement  or radical disavowal.  In the process manual workers  find themselves written out of the script, condemned to a liminal existence as a footnote in a history that has migrated elsewhere, often by Leftists  anxious  to embrace ‘new times’.  With the results we are currently seeing in the rise of  support for UKIP.

This preliminary   discussion  leads us into a series of larger questions. How, looking back, in order to look forward, do we estimate the legacy of  the campaigns and struggles in which we were personally involved with any kind of objectivity?  Is  our experience  really likely to be of any value or relevance to our children and grandchildren ? Of course we must hope that the answer is yes, and struggle to make it so, but we cannot ignore  the dialectic of generations to which Marx first drew our attention in  The  German Ideology  :

‘History is nothing but the succession of separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital formation, the productive forces handed down to it by all the preceding generations and this on the one hand continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances, and on the other modifies the old circumstances with completely changed activity.’

So if  history is regarded as a kind of inheritance or legacy  which is handed down  from one generation to the next, it is also, according to Marx, a transmission which is interrupted by history itself. In my view a generation is a special kind of imagined community based on inventing shared traditions linked to formative experiences and a particular life/historical conjuncture – 1968, or 1989, for example. It is a retrospective construct even though those who identify themselves in this way see it in entirely prospective terms. And because each so called ‘generation’ is engaged in creating its own traditions to mark its  advent as a  historical subject, it tends to ignore or reject the invented traditions of its predecessors. There are no ‘generational cycles’ in  history,  and   ‘generation’  in itself is an ideological or cultural construct not a    social or economic  force.  When  age  cohorts  speak and act   as if they represent a generation for  and to itself,  this is simply  in order to create  a platform from which to mobilise  a  form  of oedipal politics  against particular power blocs, especially where these are associated with the exercise of patriarchal authority.

Of course, there may be conditions where inter-generational or transgenerational identifications and solidarities occur spontaneously. Where this does not happen it becomes the special mission of the archive to build such bridges with as little pontification as possible.  There is more to this than hosting reminiscence groups of elderly campaigners  or getting them to transmit the lessons they have learnt to young activists. Rather the archive serves a meeting place  where different traditions and perspectives can enter into dialogue, and just possibly find common ground. This is what  MayDay Room is doing, for example by enabling the recent campaign for a living wage by immigrant cleaners in London to draw strength and ideas from the Wages for Housework campaign of the  1970’s. Similarly in some of the talks I have given around the memoir it has been  interesting to bring  the contemporary experiences of squatters groups in London   into conversation  with the street commune experience, more than forty years previously.

Certainly the rhetorical notion that one generation holds the world in trust for its successors is an attractive one, and one  that the environmental movement has made much of.  At the same time history- as- legacy  may come to be  perceived as a poisoned chalice; the younger generation blames its elders for having made such a mess of things ( just look at global warming!), while they in turn blame the young for failing to pick up the torch and carry on their struggle. As James Joyce has Stephen Daedalus famously say in  Ulysses  ‘history is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awake’ . Nationalisms, especially subordinated nationalisms are notorious for imposing a burden of representation (old heads) on young shoulders. There are too many archives which in the name of preserving cultural heritage or keeping the collective memory of  past injustice  alive  dedicate themselves to the pursuit of irredentist claims ( as in the Ukraine today) ,  or  seek to revive ancient feuds.

In more benign circumstances, historical generations pass each other, like Hegel’s old moles,  burrowing away in  blind  pursuit of their own direction home; it is left to historians  to make mountains  out of the  mounds of texts and images they deposit in the landscape; it is then the task of  the archivist to dig beneath   the surface  to  unearth  the traces of the journey which connect them.

We are used to the idea that the dominant historiography is produced by the winners and that an alternative history, a history of the underdogs, the losers, the people whose  voices and lives have been marginalised or suppressed,  is nevertheless possible and comprises a counter-hegemonic narrative. This history from below, which E.P. Thomson famously characterized as rescuing these groups from ‘the vast condescension of posterity’,  can be dramatically counter-posed to the top down history which features the rich and powerful, the big battalions. And yet these two perspectives perhaps share  more common ground that their protagonists  would like to allow. In both cases  there is a common and common- sense  notion of  history as a zero sum game, in which every gain is at someone else’s expense, in which the only  possible outcome is either victory or defeat, one person’s profit is another’s direct loss; yet this form of accountancy  is only applicable in certain exceptional contexts and conjunctures, which we rightly refer to as turning points or tipping points, or revolutionary moments, to which a bifurcated notion of historical process does indeed correspond. More usually it is a story of mediation, compromise,  some partial gains and losses, muddling through.

There is a strong bi-polar  tendency in Leftist culture, summed up in  Gramsci’s famous injunction to practice ‘pessimism of the intellectual, optimism of the will’.  The Left is very good at  constructing worse case scenarios , catastrophism is its middle name.  Anyone who has ever ventured into Trotskyland  will know the seductive appeal of the great boot in the sky which appears ineluctably every time revolutionary  workers raise the banner of freedom only to be crushed under the heel  of the crypto fascist state  and/or betrayed by their own leaders But this depressive position is immediately countered by the manic. Prophecies of doom give way to a  New Dawn, Cenotaph is followed by Jubilee as day follows night.

So the cadences of history gets written and remembered all on one note. Yet it does not have to be this way. Frederick Rzewski’s pianistic anthem ‘The People United Will Never be Defeated’ consists of 35 variations on the opening theme, in which it is played  hopefully, relentlessly, impatiently, gently, improvisationally, crisply, tenderly, evenly, recklessly and ‘like fragments of an absent melody’.  To retrieve  the rich modulation of feeling  mobilized by its political project, especially in its more generous and Utopian impulses, is surely one of the most urgent tasks and difficult challenges facing its archivists.

Moreover to assume that history-as-success story is only confined to institutions, groups or individuals with wealth and power is clearly wrong. Cultural history, the history of ideas, the history of science is full of movers and  shakers  who succeeded against all the odds in changing the rules of the game. And as we will see in a minute this has a direct bearing on  the changing apparatus of fame, celebrity and the brokerage of ‘immortality’.

When it comes to popular history, to  the  way that popular democratic struggles, ( viz Peterloo and the Chartists, the Paris Communes, the 1926 General Strike,  The Spanish Civil War, the post war miner’s strikes   the poll tax riots  etc etc ), when we look at how these big moments  are portrayed in films, on TV, in historical novels, and how such events become sedimented in the collective memory of  a society or particular protagonists within  it,   then we see  the game of winners and losers  being played for much higher stakes; and so the temptation to play loser wins,  to  conjure retrospective victory out of the bitter ashes of defeat, is correspondingly high.

A case in point is  the legacy politics surrounding the 1871 Paris Commune. The reasons for the defeat of the Communards and the lessons that can be drawn from  it have been a subject of heated debate on the Left ever since. Theories range from the hysterically materialist   –  due to their  starvation rations – the Communards were forced to eat a diet of rats and cats-  they  got such bad dysentery that they could no longer man the barricades, to the  outright conspiratorial : the leaders of the commune were secretly in alliance with the Prussian army  whom they hoped would attack the rump Monarchist government in Versailles. Marx’s own account of  the events, which is whole heartedly  in support of the Communards and vitriolic in its attack on Thiers, has a different version of conspiracy theory:

The conspiracy of the ruling class to break down the revolution by a civil war carried on under the patronage of the foreign invader – a conspiracy which we have traced from the very 4th of September down to the entrance of MacMahon’s praetorians through the gate of St. Cloud – culminated in the carnage of Paris (The Civil War in France).

Over  sixty years later, a Norwegian communist and journalist Nordahl Grieg,   who had been reporting another civil war – in Spain – and had a close up view of the internecine  politics of the Republicans, wrote a play called Defeat in which he transposed that situation back to the  Paris Commune. The central dramatic issue which the play explores is whether the revolution needs to defend itself by adopting authoritarian forms of  discipline and control, if not outright terror, which negate its historical purpose, or whether it is better to risk defeat by adopting the moral high ground and exemplifying the liberation it promises. Grieg may have been in two minds himself but there is no doubt he gives the best lines to Eugene Varlin, the leader of the anarchist  workers. The apparent moral of his  play is that it may in some circumstances be better to be a heroic loser,to retain your humanity and a vision of a better world while going down fighting, than to embrace the  brutal tactics of your class enemies in order to vanquish them in what amounts to a pyrrhic victory. In the closing moments of the play, when the game is up, one of the character’s remarks ‘Tell me something greater to desire for mankind than the power to become inhuman’

When in 1949 Brecht was asked by the politbureau of the GDR to rewrite the play as an orthodox Leninist fable to be performed by the newly created Berliner Ensemble,    he would have none of Grieg’s libertarian ‘defeatism’. He wrote ‘ I’ll cut out the petty bourgeois nonsense and put some life into it, while sticking to the historical facts’. So he expurgated anything which  cast doubt on the  validity of Red Terror, and has Varlin say ‘If you want freedom, you must first suppress the oppressors and give up as much of your freedom as is necessary to that end’ – the exact opposite of the anarchist leader’s  position.

The notion of history as a zero sum game, in which playing at ‘loser wins’  is regarded as  a self defeating strategy is not just a Leninist principle. The point  was brought home to me when I had to  teach history to  a  group of stroppy teenage school truants from the local Peabody estate in Covent Garden; their  interest in the past was confined to last year’s top ten hits, and the record of Arsenal in the FA cup, about which they were very knowledgeable. I decided to do a series of lessons about   action packed events in which there was a  clash of contending social and ideological forces and a dramatic outcome   and which included  The 1381 Peasants revolt and the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising. This was in the as-it-turned-out naïve belief that their imaginations would be captured by the sheer excitement of it all, and their sympathy with the underdogs stirred by the heroic but doomed resistance of peasants and workers.  Not a bit of it. As one of the boys put it, when I asked what could be learnt from the Peasant’s Revolt:  ‘they lost Sir, didn’t they’. Growing up in a culture in which the playground taunt  of ‘loser’ touches  the most hidden wounds of class,  knowing that they had already been written off by the education system as losers, these boys were desperate for quick wins.   They had no time for the long duree, for the idea that the Peasants’ Revolt marked the beginning of the end of feudal absolutism.

Now it so happens that in The Poverty of Philosophy, in his withering critique of Proudhon’s facile historicism, Marx uses the case of Feudalism to suggest another version of winners and losers. He writes :

‘Feudalism had two antagonistic elements which are  designated by the name of the good side and the bad side of feudalism, irrespective of the fact that it is always the bad side that in the end triumphs over the good side. It is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by providing a struggle. If, during the epoch of the domination of feudalism, the economists, enthusiastic over the knightly virtues, the beautiful harmony between rights and duties, the patriarchal life of the towns, the prosperous condition of domestic industry in the countryside, the development of industry organized into corporations, guilds and fraternities, in short, everything that constitutes the good side of feudalism, had set themselves the problem of eliminating everything that cast a shadow on the picture – serfdom, privileges, anarchy – what would have happened? All the elements which called forth the struggle would have been destroyed, and the development of the bourgeoisie nipped in the bud. One would have set oneself the absurd problem of eliminating history.’

Well we know that the latter day advocates of the ‘end of history’  do indeed see capitalism as a success story in these terms: it is  the only game in town and its destructiveness, its bad side, is just a unfortunate facet of its  dynamic creativity, its good side. Schumpeter’s reformulation turned Marx’s profound – and profoundly Hegelian – insight in the tragic contradiction of capitalism, namely that capital could not produce wealth without also producing poverty, and that its drive to replace living, value creating, labour power with dead labour to increase productivity, if that project were ever to be achieved,   would result in its own demise – Schumpeter turned that tragic contradiction into a simple binary opposition.  And in doing so he took us back onto the traditional liberal roundabout which sees good and bad in everything.

Yet if we hold to the classical Marxist view that history proceeds solely by its bad side, by its negative dialectic, we can quickly find ourselves mired in a morally unsustainable standpoint. Do we really wish for the further immiseration of the poor in the hope that it will transform them into a force capable of overthrowing capitalism? Do we ransack history in the quest for ever more numerous instances of black oppression, working class exploitation, the persecution of the Jews, the discrimination against women and children, in order to join them up into a grand narrative  of heroic resistance  and triumph over adversity?  Or does this only yield up a series of  tunnel visions underwriting competing victimologies and predicated on the graphic detailing of atrocity stories which leave us feeling helpless in our identification with other peoples suffering, an identification which brings its own perverse, if disavowed, sado-masochistic pleasures.

It is understandable to take the view  that every historical event, every movement,  has its good and bad side,  is  at once progressive and reactionary, and then  leave it to posterity to judge the final balance of forces.  This approach, having it both ways, is  popular with many curators and archivists, who  do not want to be accused of bias and feel that  the relativism implied by showing multiple interpretations of the same event is anyway de rigueur in these so called ‘post modern’ times.  Welcome to the Museum of Dialectical Idealism. Like post modernism itself, with its fetishism of the ‘unreliable narrator’ I think that this is a bit of a cop out. But what kind of standpoint,  moral and epistemological, can we construct, which does not rest on some a priori claim to value neutrality or undecidability, yet  still  enables the archive, in all its inevitable selectivity of materials, to avoid becoming the site of endless ideological battles which may tear it apart ?

Let us Now Praise Famous Men and Women: Paradigms Lost and  Regained 

One way to grasp what is at stake here is to consider the underlying grammars of the historical imagination, the different ways there are of articulating past, present and future into a narratable memoryscape, what Bakhtin called a ‘chrono-topography’.   The first grammar we might call proto-modernist. The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   In contemporary academic circles this model is pretty much discredited although it can still be found in some archival   strategies. But it is very much alive in popular history where it sustains social aspirations, and social movements of every kind, especially those associated with identity politics. This kind of do-it-yourself heritage industry builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place, in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are  collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written.
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Proto-modernists are great devotees of material culture  and the cargo cults of consumerism, but they are also fully paid up members of the throwaway society. Objects and their associated  memories that are deemed to be past   their sell- by date are either updated or failing that,  binned and replaced by more recent acquisitions. The proto-modernist archive is always renewing itself and is unsentimental in its approach to collecting.

People who have inherited a lot of intellectual and cultural  capital  tend to be very snooty  about this form of  popular historicism, and, for sure, it can easily be exploited; when times are hard it can be used  to create   genealogies of racial or class resentment,  once-upon-a-time  myths of  autochthony (the Island story)  and post hoc, propter hoc reasoning (first the blacks came, then unemployment increased, so the blacks are taking our jobs). Nevertheless I would argue that under more favourable circumstances this narrative grammar does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where  defeats can be regarded as only temporary  setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future world.

The second grammar might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as a dystopia.  History is now de-composed into a series of   unconnected fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social  imaginary, for the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, and sponsors various kinds of retro-chic culture. Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories, which they value precisely for their radical disconnect from  the  present. Their do-it-yourself archives create  nostalgic evocations of lost  worlds of modernity that can be recycled for ever new times.

Each of these paradigms has definite implications for how the historical imagination is exercised,  in particular for the ideological apparatus  which organises claims  to fame,   and sustains  reputational identities posthumously.  Now that organised religion and its priestly caste no longer broker  access to immortality, now that there is no guarantee that good or bad deeds will secure appropriate residence in  heaven or hell,   we are left with profane strategies  for perpetuating a place in the collective memory; these   depend entirely on locally negotiated structures of peer recognition to allocate places in the earthly halls of fame and infamy.  To make a name for yourself increasingly requires  mastery of  the arts of personal promotion and public impression management; there is now a whole profession dedicated  to  enabling – they would say ’empowering’ –  people to succeed in this enterprise.   In this context the memoir is no longer an apologia por sua vita , it becomes an exercise in do-it-yourself obituary writing based on the principle of nil nisi bonum, leaving behind a life story which glosses over the more disreputable aspects, saying to the reader in effect ‘ this is how I would like to be remembered when I am gone’.

If access to posterity has to be negotiated through some process of peer recognition, there are still two rather different pathways to immortality, which Max Weber was the first to spell out. The first relies on the exercise of charismatic authority, the ritual display of an aura of exceptional capacity (whether  of vision or  foresight, or some kind of special  mastery over events) coupled with the ability to inspire devotion amongst followers. But how can this authority, so dependent on a metaphysics of presence, continue to be exercised from the other side of the grave? That is the special task or avocation of the followers, whose mission is to perpetuate the message  of their leader and ensure that it is neither forgotten nor subject to revision in any way. Just as the body is embalmed, and all its physical blemishes cosmetically erased, so too all the imperfections of the life are smoothed away. Historiography becomes hagiography . Not that this necessarily helps to consolidate the posterity.  For if grief at the loss of their leader initially brings followers together, the charismatic  legacy  often sets them at each other’s throats, each claiming to be the true  heir, the authorised interpreter.  Sibling rivalry is not confined to families.    Today, in a post patriarchal society, where  filial pieties have given way  to those of the affinity group, these conflicts find an ever wider focus as  charismatics proliferate, in the guise of  gurus, mentors and role models, each with their own cult followings, their own  interpretive communities, their special archives of precious words and deeds.

Weber argued that charismatic authority was inherently unstable and would usually become  subject to some kind of  ‘routinisation’  and that is precisely what the archive does,  it imposes  classificatory order on the  more or less chaotic fragments of the exceptional life and gives it authorised meaning,  an institutional imprimatur. In Weberian terms  charismatic authority   gives way to bureaucratic authority. Peer recognition and reputational identity come to depend on positional, not personal status, the possession of professional competences and accredited expertise guaranteed by a corporate body and disseminated by the archive. Now it is the normative not the exceptional form of historical individuality which is celebrated posthumously. The immortality conferred on the individual by the institution is a primary means of the institution perpetuating itself beyond the life span of its members.

The retro-modernist paradigm legitimates   charismatic authority as providing a quasi-mystical  principle of transcendence vis a vis  chaotic synchronicity, a sense of sublime genius rising effortlessly above the turbulence of the times to either comprehend or transfigure them; the proto-modernist  celebrates  the  ‘ organisation man’  as a more mundane principle of continuity linking past and future. The two strategies of peer recognition   are not mutually exclusive; it is interesting to follow posthumous  reputational careers as  the dead  oscillate between  or make the often painful transition from one status to the other. In fact there is a well established meta-narrative to ease the move, featuring charismatic rebels mellowing as they age and become establishment figures; again the archive can play a prominent role in securing such retrospective evaluations.    For example  there is the transformation  of figures like Nelson Mandela or Che Guevara   from being   anti-heroes of  armed struggle for the wretched of the earth   to icons of the liberal politics of conscience cherished by  the political class  across  the Western world.    There are also many contexts and conjunctures where  individual exceptionalism and positional status merge, as for example in the ‘cult  of the personality’ where ancestor worship becomes a state religion.   The ‘genius’  whose work is perceived to transcend the time and place of its creation, and thus  becomes a legend in his or her own life time, and the ‘saint’ who gains immortality  retrospectively, are indeed the exceptions  which prove the rule  that everything depends on the politics of peer recognition.

The so –called ‘democratisation’ of fame whose advent was famously announced in Warhol’s  adage that ‘everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’,(and  in age of Facebook, we might add : to 15 people) has disrupted  these long established pathways to immortality.  It is linked to the space time compression of  memoryscape and the continual   capture, storage and retrieval   of  transient moments of everyday life in the portable digital archive.  The   recording of ambient  triviality reaches its apotheosis in contemporary celebrity  culture  with its permanent ephemeralisation of fame as trendinesss  or fashion.

The notion that everyone can  be the star in their own home movie is not just about a culture of narcissism that underpins   the manifold alienations of turbo charged consumerism, with its drastic privatisation of public aspiration; it represents a   profound crisis in the capacity of the archive, whether in its proto or retro-modernist forms,  to sustain an enduring space and time of representation for collective actions and events  which have as their long term aim the  building  and exploration  of other possible worlds. Archive fever is accompanied by a profound cultural amnesia. The planned obsolescence of memory work,  captured in fleeting images as on Instagram,  is perfectly designed to support the  just-in-time production of the self;  the fetishism of ‘presentism’ and the ever new   pushes aside  possibly painful perceptions of the past on which a resilient sense of identity depends. In a reversed form of Alzheimers short term memories crowd out the  long term and threaten to make  the archive redundant. In fact short termism and the quick fix culture is becoming a general characteristic of  both emotional and economic  investment strategies under late capitalism, a response to the  volatility of  markets and the chronic chronic instability of the life course. Why plan ahead when the future is so uncertain?

What happens when the archive tries to  withstand this hollowing out of collective memory by shutting out everything that might challenge or erode its hegemony?  This idea is  explored  by the Belgian graphic novelists, Schuiten and Peeters in   L’Archiviste. The narrator is a researcher in the department of myths and legends  at the Central Institute of Archives in Brussels and is charged with determining  whether a number of ‘obscure cities’, cities which are not on any official map but   are  the subject of much popular speculation, do in fact exist.  He sifts  through a mountain of documents trying to determine what are  apocryphal or based on hearsay, and what offer genuine proofs. He comes to the conclusion that there is sufficient evidence in the form of  architectural plans  and travellers’ tales to support  the claim that these cities, in all their immense variety, did exist once upon a time; however this geographical knowledge  has been officially suppressed because to  acknowledge the presence, even in the past, of these cities  would mean that the archive, which represents the collective historical memory  would have to be completely re-organised  at  great expense to the public purse.

 L’Archiviste  is set in a world where it is still possible for a single archive to encompass  and control the collective memory of a society and  decide who or what is  historically significant and worthy of  celebration.  Contemporary archival politics  have been complicated by the fact that this is no longer  the case. The hall of fame used to be reserved for a pantheon of national heroes, mostly statesman,  war leaders or rich philanthropists,  who variously embodied the values of a  dominant political class that had no squeamishness  about  erecting  monuments to its own posterity  as a way of eternalising its economic  and cultural power. Yet  don’t let’s forget that  this is the beginning not the end of the story.  All those  statues  of Victorian Imperialists which litter the streets of central London  were certainly  built to last, and yet    the reputational identities they were meant to sustain have either faded  into obscurity  or been  torn to shreds by revisionist historiographies.    The quest  to transcend the all too transient  bounds of human mortality remains  as  imperative and as impossible as  ever. History is by definition a revisionary process.

If claims to immortality  have never been so contested it is partly because  there are now so many rival halls of fame, each of them promoting  its  own particular brand loyalty, each anchored to a specific economy of worth.  The moral economy  celebrates moral entrepreneurs, the market economy, commercial ones;  the civic economy bigs up municipal leaders and bureaucrats, the political economy, leading figures from the national political class;  the cultural economy  establishes the reputation of  artists, writers  and intellectuals, the knowledge economy  that of  technocrats and professional experts, while  the media promote the icons or brand names of popular entertainment,  fashion, sport and ‘the spectacle’. Of course there are many hybrids: the contemporary glitterati  seamlessly connect the cultural, knowledge and media economies of worth. The obituary columns of newspapers have expanded to accommodate the proliferating media of fame, and so have the numbers and  different types of archive.  Still it is not a relativistic free for all.  There is still a  power structure, ultimately based on the political  economy of capitalism  which hierarchises these  reputational strategies  and   continues  to stratify  claims to immortality  along  lines drawn by class,  gender, and ‘race’.

The new immortality brokers  distributed across  all these spheres  are nothing if not determined lobbyists, variously organised into charities or  foundations, professional associations, learned societies, institutes, commemorative  committees, fan clubs, political cabals and the like. Their ostensible aim is to champion the  cause of their chosen figurehead  and secure for them  the best possible posthumous conditions of existence.  These are the new priests of a  secular belief in  life after death,  they  practice historiography as a form of faith healing.  Martyrology   gives a histrionic edge to  hagiography. And while it may appear that they are purely   altruistic  in their devotion to their Great Cause, it is also a form of investment that seeks to maximise the rate of return on the  intellectual, social, cultural or political capital they have invested in their heroes.

So where is the Left in all this? Of course, for the most part, the contemporary Left  wants to actively dissociate itself from all the personality cults linked to   the Holy Trinity of  Marx, Engels and  Lenin (not to mention Stalin and Mao). The pieties of political catechism or even ‘politically  correct’ thought have no place in ‘new times’.   Instead the aim is to create an alternative, counter-hegemonic hall of fame,  populated with our own heroes and heroines, our own  innovators, exceptional individuals  who embody our shared values : Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, Gramsci if you are on the Marxisant  Left.  Sartre, Adorno, Arendt, Debord  or Derrida  if you are on its libertarian wing.  Socialist feminists have their own pantheon of Great Women: The Pankhursts, Emma Goldman, Vera Brittain, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Frida Kahlo and many more.   Is that then the role of the Left archive, to collect the materials which will stake these claims?  Will this represent an ingathering of all those who are otherwise marginalised, in death as in life, so as to challenge  the  dominant stratification of immortality? Or is it simply to mirror the fetishism of individual accomplishment  at the expense of collective  achievement  that is such a hallmark of neo-liberal  capitalism? Or worse still  to create new articles of faith, new loyalty oaths, new catechisms in place of the old?

When James Agee and Walker  Evans  ‘immortalised’ the poor white sharecroppers of the  Southern United States  in their  now classic book  Let us now Praise Famous Men they set out to document  the everyday lives and struggles of people  who normally only enter history as faceless statistics of poverty, unemployment and premature mortality. They certainly succeeded in their self appointed task of giving a human face to the Great American Depression. And yet the success of the book, what made it a classic, and hence perpetuated  the lives of the characters it portrayed  beyond their mortal span, was the peculiarly intense, poetic and introspective quality of Agee’s  prose and   Evans’ photographs. Without that  creative testimony,     these lives would  have gone publicly  unrecorded, remaining within the local confines of their family and community  memoryscapes; they would not have taken on the aura of emblematic  presences in the grand narrative of this epoch of USA history.

This  leaves us with  an uncomfortable question – does it depend on exceptionally  talented individuals – in this case a writer and a photographer, but it could just as well be an archivist, or an oral historian like Studs Terkel  – to  give poetic  substance and enduring meaning  to  the otherwise  unexceptional  lives of   people whose historical significance is precisely that they bore witness to the impact of larger forces which they could not control, and sometimes did  even not fully understand?

At this point we are returned to what might be called the ethnographer’s dilemma. As a condition of providing a space of representation for voices that  are otherwise marginalised or silenced, by  recording and amplifying what they have to tell  to a much wider audience than their peers, in other words, by giving them a platform within the bourgeois public realm, the ethnographer serves as an intermediary, or rather an interlocutor, who  interprets the  informants  to the authorities, and vice versa. Even if the ethnographer consciously adopts the role of advocate  rather than neutral  ‘go-between’, even if  the interpretive community is widened to include the informants themselves, nevertheless the actual process of archiving the material that has been collected  normally ensures that it remains within the ownership and control  of existing centres for the accumulation of intellectual capital. You only have to look at  the Smithsonian in the USA (coming soon to the Olympic Park in East London)  or the Amsterdam Institute for Social History to get the point.

One of the exciting aspects of  the MayDay Rooms is that it is precisely not attempting to compete with such organisations, either in the scope or the scale of its archiving operations, or in its modus operandi. Rather it seems to have chosen a more limited but more strategic path, in  focusing on what might be pre-figurative   moments and movements on the libertarian left  since the 1960s  whose relevance for the future development of an alternative politics has yet to be determined. But what kind of historical imaginary does this entail?

From realpolitik to dingpolitik : rethinking the  archive

If there is an alternative to the  proto and retro-modernist paradigms,  I think it might come from reconsidering  history-as-legacy, not as a way  of immortalising the past, or amortising our debt to it, but precisely in order to  re-mortalise and revalue it. And this bears directly on an existential reality. When we die, our  things, our most intimate possessions, and the  stories bound up with them, are dispersed. Books, photographs, objects, letters, CDs, clothes,  the whole paraphernalia of everyday life,  are  scattered like our ashes to the winds of change and sometimes to the four corners of the globe. In tracing this diaspora of things we can actually reconstitute the trajectory of a life, its social networks, the extent and limitations of its reach.  In the normal course of events  a lot of this stuff  is bequeathed to family and friends, or sometimes to archives of one kind or another, in the trustful hope they will be conserved and cherished ­­­ a remainder which is also a reminder of the life  that has been lived, the times and places it has been part of.
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Now, although our precious things, the things which evoke for us important moments or people in our lives, may be fragile, and need to be cherished, unless they are tokens of the relationship we actually had with those on whom  we bestow  them, they cannot retain their original significance. Objects are promiscuous, they bestow their meaning on whoever adopts them and treats them well. So these remains  elicit a re-minding  in another sense, because they are  re-assembled, re-told, re- evaluated, re-concentrated  in a different narrative, they begin to function in another memoryscape than their donor’s; it is only on condition that they do so that they survive as part of a living archive, a history of the present. This revisionary principle holds true even when an archive is specifically dedicated to the task of perpetuating  someone’s memory. That perpetual revisionism, in my view is the characteristic dingpolik of the living archive.

One of  conditions of such a project  is the uncoupling of exceptionalism from individualism. This means  firstly to retrieve and depict the genealogy of events or movements which  in however small a way unsettle the power of  State or Capital, interrupt the flow of information and  commodities,  challenge  the prevailing  consensus, in order  to make uncommon sense of what happened – or didn’t –  at specific  tipping  or turning points.  Secondly  it is about capturing and locating individual life stories within   the trajectory of the   situations  they are caught up in. Marx’s  notion of historical individuality, which identifies transformative individuals and groups solely  on the basis of their  relation to the class struggle, is a crudely reductive attempt to connect biography with history, albeit one which, by the simple device of substituting gender, sexuality or ‘race’ for class, has continued to inform many archivist projects associated with identity politics.  In contrast the Left archive needs to link biography and history as an exercise in sociological imagination (after C Wright Mills) and  without reducing one to the ‘expression’ of the other (i.e individuall agents seen as  being driven by historical forces or social destines, or  conversely  history consisting of a chain of events whose prime mover  is individual will power).  The very notion of individuality, i.e. of a human subject always and already identical to its own thoughts or actions,    is decentred by history, which inserts  a principle of counter finality, of uncertainty and unintended  consequence, between  any given project  and its outcome The map of a life, however clearly drawn, is always more and less  than its territory. The archive should be about opening up that potential space of  under-determination.

By  the same token the agent who  ‘makes history’ becomes radically  eccentric to itself in so far as  its programmatic intentions  find their only centre of articulation in the processes which it  helps to set in motion but which by definition exceed its grasp. Manifestos have only tried to change the world, the task for the archivist is to interpret them, to account for the success or failure of these performative or pseudo-performative acts.

To introduce this principle of discontinuity as a bridge between past, present and future  brings into focus  the more or less violent  ruptures and  discordances which historical events create in the lives of those caught up in them. The life stories which hinge on the split between  ‘before’ and ‘after’, or which revolve  endlessly around a moment which is  too traumatic  to be properly articulated,  these, surely are the  raw material  of the Left archive; the aim must be  not  to record these stories  in search of some therapeutic ‘closure’, a happy ever after ending, or to vicariously open up old wounds. Rather than  inertly  bearing witness, whatever archival materials are to hand ( objects, photographs, newspaper cuttings, etc) must be embedded in the  scaffolding needed to enable them to be instructive.  They have to be usable as  navigational strategies  between a seemingly  occluded past, an impassable present, and an unthinkable future. The task of recovery   may involve reclaiming  historical rebels from  the enormous condescension of their canonisation  by the establishment; it may mean bringing  movements and events that have been forgotten in the midst of contemporary archive fever in from the cold; it may involve devising thought experiments in which the  counter—factual and the counter-intuitive  are pitched against each other in deconstructing  history as wish fulfilment. In any event there is a decisive break from both the structuralist  and narrativist approaches to understanding the past in the present.

From this vantage point, an alternative notion of the exceptional appears. Confronted with the brute facts of injustice, pitted against indifferent or afflicted powers, subject to  the catastrophes  of second nature, ordinary people do the most extraordinary  things; they perform feats of endurance, acts of generosity or self sacrifice, labours of love and mutual aid  that in more ordinary circumstances they would not be  imagined  capable of.  No-one who has been privileged to witness this glimpse of true human possibilities can ever forget it.  At a time when everything that is solid about such solidarities  seems to have melted into air, It is worth  remembering, documenting and celebrating such moments  when the a real culture of comradeship emerges  in what David Graeber has rather mischievously called ‘actually existing communism’.  Whether it is the Stephen Lawrence Campaign or Justice for Hillsborough, not to mention countless other, smaller and less well publicised campaigns, each has its own distinctive discourse, its site specific idioms of political engagement, its characteristic jokes, stories, slogans  and  songs, its passionate internal debates, its rituals of affiliation. As Graeber points out we have hardly begin to create an ethnography of such movements. A lot of the Left dismisses them as ‘single issue’ campaigns, ignoring the new affinities and alliances that are created, the new  translocal networks  of association  that spring to life. But it precisely here that   prefigurative  forms of a more inclusive and participatory  democratic politics can be found.

That is not to say that we should romanticise such instances. The emotional and ideological bonds formed during struggles can all too easily become double binds, friendships can also foster enmities. As anyone who has done time in one of the sectarian groupuscules of the far Left can testify,  the stereotype of the political activist as a dogmatic ideologue, a humourless ranter who lives only  for the next ’demo’  and is never so happy as when manning (and sometimes womanning) real or imagined barricades, is  not an entirely fictional character!  To counter this stereotype  we need ‘warts and all ‘ accounts, not sanitised or sentimentalised – let along sensationalised – versions of events.   It is only through such accounts  that any  thick mapping can be made of the shifting networks of affiliation and influence   connecting  and disconnecting the manifold configurations of  ideological practice   that make up  the field of Left politics.

Finally the Left archive has to address the blind spots in its own preferred    memoryscape, not just the moments or movements consigned to the footnotes in the authorised  accounts  but  the micro-politics   of everyday life that do not register on the Leftist  radar      because they do not adopt the kind of rhetorics, campaigning strategies or organisational forms  that are recognised as part of  the repertoire  of ‘doing politics’.  So in addition to scavenging in the dustbins of official left historiography, it is  important to proactively seek out emergent groups  and new practices, for example around  the commons. Small acts of Guerrilla gardening and do- it-yourself urbanism  are as worthy of documentation as  the big actions of  the  Occupy movement from which they often  draw inspiration.

Of course the fact that so much political mobilisation is now done via social media  means  that its documentation can be crowd sourced. In future a lot of the material collected by political archives will be in this format. Campaigning ephemera will no longer be so ephemeral.  And this also means that archives can develop new research platforms that reflexively monitor and collect evidence about on-going struggles, and sample responses to particular conjunctures.

For example I recently   carried out  a small on line survey   looking at how left activists and academics  of various affiliations  were responding to the spate of public commemoration around the centenary   of the start of the First World  War[1]. I emailed   a short questionnaire, in the first instance to my personal network of friends and colleagues, with the request that they should pass it  on to  their  own social and professional circles. Quite  quickly I had a largish sample, broadly based  in terms of age and viewpoint, drawn from the  left/liberal intelligentsia, not only academics ( though they were the largest group), but people working in the cultural industries, public service, and community organisations. The majority were highly critical  of the revisionist message  being relayed through much of media – namely that the war was a futile and tragic enterprise redeemed by the heroism and fortitude of the common soldier. They felt  quite rightly that this begged a lot of important political questions. So far so predictable. But what surprised me was the fact  that the vast majority did not know about or just ignored the two minutes silence on November 11. I  asked what people thought about during this time, only to discover that the most  had simply carried on with business as usual.  A few  consciously boycotted the event either as an anti-militaristic gesture or because they were fed up with the saturation media coverage; the  few who did observe the silence all had personal memories of members of their family having been in one of the world wars, in many cases being killed or injured. The existence of such a large  unsilent majority   gave me pause for thought. In the light of  answers  to some of the other questions, it seemed likely  that what was involved  here was an act of dissociation from official  one-nation memory politics and its links with popular patriotism;  the responses  were essentially unmindful of the deep resonance  of the event and its aftermath  for large sections of the population, including those from the ex- colonies whose grandparents had fought and died in it.  Because the first world war did not feature as significant  in their personal  memoryscape it was regarded as politically irrelevant. In this respect the unsilent were endorsing the very cultural amnesia that  in other contexts they would be the first to condemn, while at the same time  isolating themselves from large numbers of people whose hearts and minds they are seeking  to influence. If only they had used the two minutes silence to reflect on that fact!

This little exercise suggests that one fruitful point of departure for a programme of research based in a Left archive might be  to  recognise  what it does not contain,  the aporia in Leftist world views  as well as the occlusions of  popular memory. By mapping one set of absences against the other, it might  be possible to establish their principles of (non)correspondence and  get a clearer picture of the terra  incognita  that needs  to be explored. The next step would be to issue  some ‘search warrants’, to identify sources of missing information. Of course it is entirely possible some of this information is hidden in existing archives, improperly classified so it is irretrievable. Certainly the way in which archives that might contain ‘sensitive’ information are organised has to be closely scrutinised. But most of the material that might yield fresh insights into political events,( photographs, diaries etc), is  either hoarded to be passed on to relatives, or not even recognised as being of historical importance and thrown away.

If the Left archive  is  to  provide a platform for critical scholarship, it has to break with  the whole culture of  research   based on  the  ‘hands round the text’ reading model in which academics   work in splendid isolation to produce learned monographs for consumption and, hopefully, approbation by their  peers. Indeed the whole ethos of the neo-liberal university, its promotion of  competitive individualism and academic careerism has to be   called into question. At the very least  this must mean   challenging the disciplinary boundaries drawn by the academic division of labour in favour of a trans-disciplinary approach to archiving.

In some ways the human sciences have created a Frankenstein’s monster, a hybrid made up of many disparate parts, none of which fit, but whose tissues have been stitched together into the semblance of a more or less functioning simulacrum of a human being. There is a part of this creature that works and a part that plays, a part that plans and another that dreams, a part that thinks and a part that is preoccupied with bodily functions. The problem is that each of these parts has its own exclusive interpreters, who act as if this creature did nothing but work, or play, or solve problems, or make rational choices, or have sexual phantasies, or tell stories, or make things happen. But in the case of the politics of everyday  life, all these things are going on at once.

The problem is not confined to the human sciences. It is the great failure of traditional Left political culture  to have produced a one dimensional view of what the political process is about, a view that may eschew the narrow electoral pre-occupations of the  political class, but which  nevertheless mirrors its reduction of bios politikos  either to participation in a more or less disembodied, bureaucratised  system of governance or else to mass mobilisation as its antithesis. But as Foucault showed us,  the administration of things  always  involves the disciplining of bodies,  and as  Raoul Vaneigem and Roberto Unger have insisted,  the re-enchantment of the civic realm as a stage for the enactment of direct democracy, (Giorgio Agembem’s ‘coming community’)  always requires rediscovering  the passionate and the ludic, the mythological and the ritualised  as  distinctive political/personal  idioms.

If the Left archive is to genuinely enlarge the imaginative  reach of collective memory   it has to register these  more subtle  dimensions of  human agency at work in and sometimes against  the crude thoughts of  political rhetoric; for this purpose the Left archive  must  become more embedded in the networks of communication, whether virtual or face to face, that sustain  everyday conversations  about  matters of shared concern wherever they occur : in the street, in the supermarket  or shopping arcade, in the workplace  and leisure centre.

Here it might be worth  considering how to use the new information technologies  to return to the original agenda of that pioneering archive known as Mass Observation. Before it got sidetracked into sampling public opinion for government  and doing market research for big business,  MO’s original plan was to document and archive  locally situated accounts of  everyday life. The founders, a poet, an artist and a photographer, all of them influenced as much by surrealism as by anthropology, were especially interested in capturing a popular  culture’s  other scenes, its affordances of the social imaginary, the material dreams   through which capitalism worked its special magic and the daydreams of other possible worlds; as a result the private  passions and  personal dispositions of MO correspondents  were regarded as being as significant as  what they  had for breakfast or thought about the political issues of the day, for out of this   idiosyncratic substrate  new structures of shared feeling  and belief might arise.

To map out these possibilities as well as to generate thick descriptions and analyses of ‘actually existing communism’  we  need to mobilise the insights of psychoanalysis as well as political sociology, put economics into conversation with  ethnography, enable historians to find  common ground with linguists. And for this purpose we need to identify some key concepts and methodologies  that enable such exchanges to take place. The Marxist apparatus  of dialectical rationality no longer supplies an  over-arching framework, let alone a convincing meta-narrative for research into the way capitalism’s internal contradictions are relayed simultaneously through  hearts and minds, bodies and body politics. In my view actor network theory (ANT)  as developed by Bruno Latour and his colleagues offers a  possible way forward for transdisciplinarity in so far as its focuses explicitly on the relay systems, the tracing of linkages and associations between disparate elements (technologies, environments, discourses, institutions) as so many formatting of power. ANT also implies a  definite strategy  for organising the archive to  give priority to the potential and actual connections to be made between disparate items, rather than privileging their collation into fixed or a priori thematic or analytic categories. In Basil Bernstein’s terms this implies weak classification of already coded knowledge and strong framing of  the  tacit properties of an emergent chrono-topography.

ANT’s current vogue comes from the fact that it is a methodology ideally suited to  track the  globalisation of knowledge/power relations through its dissemination via  trans-local conduits. But let’s be clear here: the Internet, the chief engine of globalisation and the knowledge economy, is not and cannot be an archive. It may store unimaginably vast amounts of digitalised data, it may accelerate the information flow, but it cannot do what an archive does, which is  to  insert  documents within a framework of  interpretation, a community of practice that gives them new meaning. For example,   Albert Khan’s  project for an  Archives of the Planet, dispatched photographers to the four corners of the globe in search of documentary evidence about the impact of modern technologies on pre-modern ways of life. He wanted to capture visually what was happening to ordinary people’s lives on the cusp of momentous change in the 1930s. It is the largest collection of early colour photographs in the world, but in scope and scale it cannot rival what is available on Google Images. But it remains the only archive of its kind because the collection is inspired and organised around Khan’s internationalist vision.

At the level of archival  practice, the challenge to the Academy, as Iain Boal has pointed out,  requires actively socialising  the process of acquiring, classifying, reading  and re-presenting materials,   involving an ongoing   collaboration between donors and recipients as members of a single  interpretive community. This can take many forms : the co-curation of exhibitions, public debates,  dialogue  between different generations of activists, making learning resources  for schools, collective videography and so on.  However it is not always easy to suspend, let alone reverse,  prevailing knowledge/power relations, even if  some of their more alienating affects can be mitigated.

It is worth considering here the role of the Left archive  as an interface between the Dissenting Academy  and the communities whose causes it espouses.   With the demise of the public intellectual, or rather their transformation into  what Régis Debray has called the mediocracy –  media savvy academics with  specialist expertise – the role of the scholar-activist has inevitably been confined to the margins of  cultural life. The Left archive may indeed be one of the few places left where something like an intellectual commons  can be sustained in which  people without formal academic qualifications can play  a leading role. Some of the most creative archivists turn out to be auto-didacts, because the obsessionality which is such a feature of collecting  can here be put to  constructive use. Still we should not ignore the fact that the engagement of the Academy – and the Archive-  in community politics  may result in a certain  gentrification of urban social movements, including those which are campaigning against the invasion  of their areas by students, academics and creative professionals from the knowledge economy.

The kind of journey I have been describing does not  go from A to B along a prescribed path  following  an existing  route map; rather it is one which imposes its own unpredictable line of desire,  creates its own hitherto unmapped waypoints. The idea that archives are improvisatory structures has been pioneered by Infoshop 56a  in London, and the Interference Archive in New York. Yet this is only one side of the story. The conservation of materials  usually requires  suitable storage facilities,  trained staff,  specialised equipment and above all a long term commitment. This delicate balancing act, between the capacity to respond pro-actively to emergent areas  and the need to preserve and consolidate existing  holdings,  is  a perennial issue for museums. Most resolve it by leavening the permanent collection with  temporary  exhibitions. Public archives  can  draw selectively on their holdings in a  rotating front of house display programme.  But the tension between bridging and bonding capital remains.

One way of reconciling these conflicting priorities  lies  in exploring the notion of the erratic archive whose curation policy mirrors  both senses of our mode of   dwelling in the world : lingering over moments and materials  that are usually skimmed or abridged, if not totally ignored,  and    hop, skip and jumping over the major, already well documented  landmarks.  say  of  labour history or women’s history, in search of lost causes or hidden singularities that  feature on a deeper map  drawn by an equally erratic Marxism: a revisionary Marxism whose errance  includes  both a recognition of its own tragic mistakes and a commitment to always go beyond itself in the attempt to grasp what  eludes it – the true movement of history.

Perhaps it is worth pausing here to consider the distinction between memory politics of the museum and the archive, especially since their forms and functions are being increasingly conflated and  subsumed under an ever   more totalising aesthetics of curation. The museum’s primary role is public display and interpretation of artefacts and  its acquisitions  policy is usually subordinated to that; whereas the archive concentrates on accumulating records and other documents and display has a secondary role.  Of course there has always been some overlap – museums often contain archives, and some archives have a museological  dimension. However the advent of digital technologies has profoundly changed these roles. It is not just that collections, whether of  artefacts or records, can now be  made accessible on line, but that the wear and tear that comes with  frequent handling of materials can be  greatly reduced and preservation costs   correspondingly diminished. Moreover the  size of an archival collection no longer has to depend on the amount of storage or display space and it  is also  easier to organise ‘pop up’ exhibitions  using inter-active visual display technologies. The virtual archive, in the form of  the personal or organisational website  has  opened up an erratic  presence in cyberspace for many  do-it- yourself archivists   who could never afford the infrastructure costs needed to  sustain  a full blown  institutional apparatus.

That is the good news. But there is also a down side to the digital datification process. The virtual museum and on line archive is no substitute for the real thing. We still need ‘lieux de memoire’  which we can visit and invest with our own memories, places with their own unique characteristics  where we can get hands on experience of  reading original documents, have  face-to-face encounters  with staff and  meet our fellow researchers over lunch to discuss  common enthusiasms, share the latest gossip  and generally sustain the intellectual commons as a community of practice. The importance of these convivial sites is underscored by the  very real danger   that the software programmes needed to read older digitalised  documents  are rapidly becoming obsolete so that  large amounts of social data stored in virtual archives   will eventually be un-retrievable. No one, apart from future historians of  popular culture,  will lose any sleep if ‘bit rot’ attacks the  instant  archiving of  everyday life which our digital devices accomplish as part of ‘selfie’ culture,  or even  if the ever expanding inventories  of  our ever accelerating production of texts stored on our personal computers are made redundant. But there is a broader issue at stake here.

It used to be technophobes who proclaimed  that  digital culture  was responsible for the end of  civilisation as they knew it, and was going to produce a generation of  zombified cyborgs. But now these same concerns  are being voiced by digital activists themselves, who are beginning to argue that  the so called ‘smart city’ agenda will actually accomplish a profound de-skilling of place intelligence, and lead to the creation of cities without collective memoryscapes.  Already there are signs that the citizens of cyberspace  are beginning to rebel against the hollowing out of experience by  the ‘quantified self’ created through social media. The current fetishism of ‘curation ’, its application to everything from the design of exhibitions to lists of sampled music on Spotify,  speaks to the pervasive desire to wrest from – or impose upon – what is otherwise just another consumerist  mash up   some  sense of personal signature and life-historical value. There may be more common ground   between  the epistemic priorities of the  archivist and the ontological needs  of the consumer than   either have  suspected.

We are all  time travellers and  we also know that time’s arrow does not, all appearances to the contrary, fly in one direction or follow a straight line. If we live long enough to come from a place that has become a foreign country simply  because it no longer issues passports recognised by the current arbiters of  significance, then its remembrance, of necessity, becomes an act  of  trespass, criss-crossing  all those invisible  lines in the sands of time which contemporary historians have drawn to get their bearings : The 1960s, the Thatcher years, The Digital Age, The Post War, the Post Millenium, the noughties,  Generation Rent, so many fixed points of reference designed to capture the zeitgeist but which mostly fail to engage the  actual periodicities  informing  the unfolding of  life histories or events. To trace the erratic course of biographies and histories  at the contingent points where they intersect to personal and political effect, and to configure those points into new maps or networks of meaning must surely be  what the Left archive is all about.

There is always the danger of a dingpolitik of the archive which become just another exercise in reification. The very notion of a ‘deposit’ intimates  the inert quasi-geological stratification  of ossified material  into different levels of significance, a sedimentation of the historical process into fixed layers of  meaning to be decoded and read like a palimpsest. There is an aura of the uncanny that hovers around the ghosts in the machinery of the archive, all those material and textual  traces of the lives of the dead scrupulously  re-animated to provide a graphic  three dimensional portrait of  times past. The museological ambitions of the archivist certainly tend to pull curatorial practice  towards a form of cultural taxidermy. That is why I have stressed the importance of   the erratic, the continual  need to improvise and destabilise meanings in the midst of an enterprise that is so vitally concerned to find within the inferno of history, that which is not inferno, and give it space, make it endure.

In the shadow of Marx’s monumental tomb  in  Highgate Cemetery and in the midst of  so many luminaries of the revolutionary Left,  there is a small plaque to a local resident, a Mr Griffiths, who was famous only to his family  and friends for his love of poetry as well as his devotion to improving the lot of his fellow working man. According to his epitaph  he ‘fell asleep’ and his life has remained dormant and unsung ever since.  Those  who come to  worship at the shrine of Marxism  do not notice this little overgrown plot, or consider for a moment what its overlooking might tell us about the  fate of the international communist movement in the 20th century.  But it is the unearthing of stories such as this which, it seems to me, allow us to untangle the knots tied by the ruses of political remembrance and   give to  the Left archive its purchase on the future.

  Postscript:  Ten Days that shook my world – 144  Picadilly between spectacle and  trauma

In addition to the swarm of personal memories  they evoke, the objects I brought with me  to deposit in the MayDay Rooms archive  play  host  to a whole gamut of  media  myths which are ripe for de-construction. So In my view, this material  should not  be treated as a relic, a ritual object of commemoration, but rather an actant  in an emergent network of possible interpretations, clues as to what their   still-to-be-figured  significance  might be.

  I have written about  the sociology of the street commune squats  in the opening chapter of ‘Rethinking the Youth Question’ and also about its personal impact   in my memoir.  But whatever  claims to  ‘social objectivity’  or  ‘authenticity’  these texts might variously have, there is still another story waiting to be told when  the graphic   traces of these events are re-presented to people who  may either have been directly involved in them, or observed  what was going on at a distance, or simply be curious to learn what all the fuss was about.
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My first exhibit is not one. My favourite   BIFF cartoon was never drawn but it shows a balding lecturer standing in front a group of very  bored  looking students, saying  ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I spent in a hippy squatters commune in 1968 – it was a moment of profound detournement  but unfortunately I had my sleeping bag nicked.’  Like any urban social  movement the street communes generated their own idiom, their own slogans, their own iconography, if you like, their own subculture, although in this case  the squats drew in young people of many subcultural allegiances and of none. The Left did not quite know what to make of us. After all we were neither students or workers. When we turned up at a conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF) at the Roundhouse in the naive belief that we  would gain their support for our campaign against police harassment and the ‘sus’ laws, we were quickly thrown out   amidst shouts of ‘ what do you produce? Syringes?’ The Libertarian Left was more accommodating, and there were personal as well as ideological links to the English Situationists grouped around ‘heatwave’ and   King Mob Echo. Still, Notting Hill where the majority of the English ‘sits’ were based was a long way from ‘the Dilly’ in terms of both political and  cultural  geography. The family squatting movement led by Ron Bailey was quick to dissociate itself from  our  occupations, worried no doubt that they would be tarred with the same media brush as  drop out/down and outs sponging off the State. In fact we did them a favour  because the media, and especially the Tory press drew a firm distinction between  ‘respectable’ family squatters, and the disreputable scroungers who had had the effrontery to take up residence in the Queen Mother’s old palace.

My second exhibit is only slightly less imaginary. It consists of some pages from a novel written about 144  by Sam Fuller, who had the idea of making a movie about it, but perhaps fortunately never did. It would probably  have been a cross between the gothic imaginary of Shock Corridor and a film noir like Street of No Return. In the book, which is based on media reports, only  more sexed up,  Doctor John is played by Robert, a rather earnest, intellectual hippy with pacifist tendencies, who goes off the rails. In the movie he would probably have been played by Peter (Easy Rider ) Fonda!

The following excerpt,from the final chapter, gives a flavour of the thing :

Lover Boy stared at Robert, surprised, and gasped ‘You’re crazy’!

In sickening slow motion Lover Boy crumpled backwards and lay sprawled under the red tipped sword in Robert’s hand. Several drops of blood fell on Lover Boy’s eye patch. The kid with the tattooed cock  looked dead. I crawled through darting kicking feet to Lover Boy and in the middle of the ear-shattering fighting I explored with shaky fingers. His one glassy eye stared up at me in frozen shock.

I looked around. No one else had seen the action.

No one !

Above me stood Robert. There was no expression in his face.

Then a voice rose above the confusion. It kept on shouting, over and over again : “ They’re coming!”

It was Girish. “The cops are coming!”

Angels fled to defend the squat. Through a window I saw a Scotland Yard ncommanders posting policemen outside 144. About two thousand people were in the crowd. Heavy traffic halted, curious drivers abandoned cars to join the crowd. The police were vainly trying to keep the traffic moving. An Inspector entered the forecourt even as squatters poured across the drawbridge  to escape arrest. The Inspector stepped over the heavy chain. Behind him several bobbies approached with drug-sniffing drugs.

The Inspector produced a paper and in a loud voice  said “This is a search warrant under the Dangerous  Drugs Act”. He was halfway across the drawbridge when the Angels flung him over the rail into the concrete basement below. Whistles shrilled and a wave of police rushed forwards. Immediately they were pelted with a stockpile of missiles. Squatters now gone stark raving mad were continuing the battle.

The Battle of Hippy Castle had begun.

The novel was published as  ‘the true inside story of 144’ even though it is clear from the very first page that it is entirely based on the most sensationalist accounts of the tabloid press.   Even as a piece of pulp fiction, it is a bit of a disgrace to the genre. It is just so badly written. But then Sam Fuller was writing a movie script, not a work of literature.

The question this text raises though is just what kind of spectacle was  144 ? The occupation was certainly not consciously  conceived as a piece of street theatre, performed for the media,  unlike the ‘Days of Rage’ anti Vietnam war protest  staged at the democratic Convention in Chicago which from the outset was planned with one eye on media coverage. Yet the building certainly did become  a  platform on which a whole variety of actors performed : The Hells Angels who provided the security force, the skinheads from East London outside the building who spent their time trading missiles with the Angels, the Beef  Steak Society who, contrary to Sam Fuller’s account, set up their trenchers in the courtyard and proceeded to enjoy a three course meal of traditional English fare to make the point that people who worked for as living and paid their taxes could enjoy the good things in life!  The balconies in particular served an important function, at once look out points and offering a platform from which to see and be seen by the crowds of spectators below.

The next exhibit is  my own personal archive of 144 and the other  street commune squats. It contains cuttings from both the tabloid and broadsheet press, leaflets and other ephemera produced by the LSC, a copy of the only issue of our newspaper Rubber Duck  and some photographs. The material is contained in a large  dossier about three foot square, with  stiff cardboard covers, on which I have written a dedication to my adoptive son Stephen, who unfortunately died in 2013;  the dossier has been re-dedicated to my surviving son, Ned.  So it is  very much  history-as-legacy. The material is displayed on  sheets of brown  paper, many of the cuttings have  age spotting and the  whole dossier is in a fragile condition It is a prime candidate for digitisation which is one reason I have loaned it to MayDay Rooms. The fact that they will laminate the pages  before returning the dossier to me  means that  it will indeed  be preserved for posterity and be something III can hand on to my son  in reasonable condition.

The dossier of press coverage would certainly provide a useful object of analysis for anyone interested in studying moral panics and media representations. But the question it raises for me is  rather different. Is there, can there be, an alternative politics of the media spectacle which disrupts its operation and is ‘recuperation proofed’?

We certainly did not have any developed strategy of  ‘detournement’ at 144. We used the building itself like a street newspaper, painting our slogans on the building or hanging banners from the balcony in full view of the crowds. ‘ We are the Writing on Your Walls’  which became  our iconic statement  was the result of  my reading of Emile Beneveniste’s  essay on JL Austin’s theory of performative statements and thinking about the role of graffiti as territorial markers. Looking back it seems to me to sum up the bind we were in: our power of performativity was purely symbolic, there was no real sense in which we were a political threat or about to bebebe the walls of Jericho, or London Babylon, tumbling down  by blowing our own  revolutionary trumpets. The tabloids might have conjectured that we were some kind of urban guerrilla force. The fact that there was an electricity substation in the basement of 144 and that with a flick of a switch we could have blanketed most of Mayfair in darkness, lent some credence to this view,  and the police spent a lot of time searching the building for guns and ammunition and were very disappointed when they only found a large number of plastic boules, although as we discovered when the skinheads outside the building  started to return the Hells Angel’s  fire with them, they could be pretty offensive weapons. But despite the beard and  wild hair I was no Che Guevara.

If I became the public face of 144 it was mainly because my job was indeed to deal with the media. One of the most hotly debate topics in our mass meetings was whether the tabloid press should be let into the building. We decided that if we barred them on the grounds of their sensationalist and biased reporting we would only antagonise them further and in any case these reporters were quite capable of sitting it out and just making it all up. So we organised daily press conferences in the large downstairs reception room and took the press on guided tours of the building. I don’t think it made much difference  to the way they reported the squat.

Looking through the   press cuttings again  I was struck  by certain recurrent motifs in the way the  squat was represented. There was the trope of 144  as a haunted house – the spectre of private property being turned into public property thanks to a legal loophole created by an ancient Law, and, as such threatening the very foundations of society. Predictably this was the favoured story line of the  Tory press.

 

Then there  was 144 as  Home Alone, a kind of anti- family romance, a cautionary tale of what happens when parents leave children to their own devices, especially  when the parent in question is the Queen  Mother.  This was the subtext of much of the liberal press, most notably  the Guardian, the Observer  and New Society.

Finally there was a positive rendition of this theme in the view of 144 as an alternative   orphanage, a place where children and young people  flocked  to find a home away from home, to break away from  repressive family values and experiment with new and more liberating life styles. This, of course, was the line taken by the underground press.

In quite a few instances the same incident was contextualised  and interpreted in radically different ways according to these ‘meta narratives’. Each story line ascribed different motives or intentions to the  various protagonists (the street commune, the police, the crowds etc), focussed their accounts on highly selective aspects of the squat, and located our actions and their outcome in  widely different political scenarios. And for obvious reasons it was the  tabloid version of events, broadcast  in a slightly watered down version by mainstream TV coverage   which prevailed.

My next exhibit is a rubber stamp, with ‘London Street Commune’ engraved on it. We used it at 144  to stamp peoples hands as they came and went from the  building, rather like what happens in a  rave or night club. After the fifth day of the squat only those who could show the mark  at the door  were allowed in. It was the only way we had of controlling the numbers as these swelled  beyond what the building could accommodate as result of all the publicity. This little device was the nearest we came to exercising any kind of bureaucratic authority over the squat. Major policy decisions – should we fortify the building, should the press be admitted, what action should we take if the police stormed the building, should we impose a curfew between midnight and 6 am so people could get some sleep or was this an unwarranted authoritarian assault on everyone’s right to party – all these decisions were taken by a show of hands  after discussion in our  mass house meetings every evening. These meetings often went on for several hours and there was a very high level of active participation. They  were nearest thing I have ever personally witnessed   to direct democracy in action.  They were also an intensive form of political education for young people many of whom had never  before had any say  in  decisions affecting their lives.

 My penultimate exhibit is a rubber duck. Or rather Rubber Duck, the first and final edition of  a  newspaper produced by Street Aid, the successor organisation  to the London Street Commune, and  written largely by ex street communards. It was aimed at the large floating homeless population  of young people in the West End; as well as feature articles including one about 144, it included information about hostels, legal rights, a map of squats and ‘derries’,  all night cafes and clubs.It was’nt exactly Big Issue, although we did make some spare cash selling it  around the West End – I remember David Hockney buying a copy off me in Leicester Square. Street  Aid was based initially in Soho and offered free legal advice and was linked to the Muggins Trust which was set up in memory of one of the communards who committed suicide after a bad acid trip.I have described  in my memoir. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the paper was the cartoons which we done by a very talented graphic artist  associated with King Mob Echo, the magazine of the English Situationists, who were mainly based in Notting Hill.  So here the link between the two ‘scenes’  is palpable.

My final    exhibit is a photograph and brings together the personal and political  aspects of the squat. It is a head and shoulders portrait which shows me wearing my ‘original’ T shirt  caked in oil paint  which had become my public fashion statement. I had  vowed not to take it off until our demands were met. It was very uncomfortable to wear, more like a hair shirt than a T shirtshirtshirt,  and also very smelly. The photograph was taken by a Daily Mail reporter and on the back of it is the following inscription:

Dear Mrs  Cohen

‘This is the photograph of the man known as Doctor John, who is a leader of the 144 Piccadilly  squat and whom we believe to be your son. Can you please positively identify that this is the case. If you would like to contact me I am   enclose my phone number’ signed     Daily Mail Reporter.

The photograph had been pushed through the letter box at my parents flat, where the reporter had somehow traced me.   I do not know how  the Mail had  got wind of my ‘real’ identity  but along with reporters from the Sun and the Mirror  they camped out in the lobby of the block of flats  near Euston  where my parents lived, perhaps in the hope of getting an ‘exclusive’ from me  although I had not been home for over a year. Eventually the press harassment  got so bad that my parents had to leave town and go to stay with friends in the country.

It must have been quite a shock for my mother to be suddenly confronted with this photograph of her prodigal son. How could she possibly recognise her version of me  in the bearded wild man I had apparently become and who represented everything, that as an avid  Daily Mail reader herself, she most feared and loathed?  According to my father,  the public shame she felt my notoriety in the Tory press   had brought on the family name was  so great that she resigned as a local Tory Councillor, apparently in the belief  that  she would be blamed for bringing up  a son  who had turned out to be Public Enemy Number One  and hence would become an electoral liability to the party. In fact I am sure she would have received  a large sympathy vote,  but my father  has never forgiven me for having wrecked her bona fide  political career in wilful pursuit of my own delinquent  one.  My mother, however had a different story, namely that she resigned because my father felt that her going out to political meetings  in the evening meant that he had to cook his own dinner, and was lonely without her. So here is an example of how an undisputed event – my mother’s resignation from the  Tory party – is attributed to two quite different causes, both of which are equally plausible, even as  they   point the story  in  different directions; in one case it is a story about  the petty bourgeois values of the Tory party; in the other patriarchy rules OK.

If my parents suffered at the hands of the tabloid press, I  also felt at the mercy of the media. I had a recurrent dream throughout the ten days of the occupation of being pursued by a monster with two searchlights for eyes and trailing a ganglia of cables.  The whole experience of the squat  began to havehavehave an unreal  quality form me as  the events took  on a nightmarish intensity; as public hysteria about ‘hippy squatters’ mounted, I became increasingly anxious about the backlash our actions were likely to provoke as well as fearing for  my own safety.  One symptom  of the stress I was under was the fact that  my hair started to turn  white at the ripe old age of 26!   What saved my sanity  was that I found it possible to sneak away from the squat from time to time and visit the Reading Room in the British Museum. Here, far from the madding crowds,  I read Althusser on contradiction, Beneveniste and Jakobson on language, Barthes and Levi Strauss on mythology, their calm lucid prose and style of thinking such a refreshing change from the heated  debates and collective  paranoia in which I was  otherwise immersed.  Nevertheless the memory of  those days has continued to reverberate  over the years. The events and the   scenes  witnessed at 144   left an indelible impression on many of us  and as, Birnmingham Dave says,  continue to shape the way we think about politics, culture and society.

 

References

James Agee and Walker Evans  Let us now praise famous men

Mikhail  Bakhtin   The dialogic imagination

Mikel  Bal  Travelling Concepts

Roland Barthes   Mythologies

Luc Basso   Marx and Singularity

Basil Bernstein  Class,. Codes and control Vol 1

Luc Boltanski   and Eve Chiapello The New Spirit of Capitalism

Luc Boltanski  and Luc Thevenot On Justification

Christine Boyer The City as Collective Memory

Regis Debray  The Mediocracy

Leo Braudy      The  Frenzy of Renown

Zygmunt Bauman    Morality,Immortality and other life strategies

Judith Butler     Precarious Life:  the power of mourning and violence

Sue Campbell  Our Faithfulness to the past

Phil Cohen     Reading Room Only

Phil Cohen     Rethinking the Youth Question

Phil Cohen  A Place to think ?  the neo-liberal university and public intellectuals in the age                                      of the  knowledge economy

Jacques Derrida   Archive Fever

Guy Debord  Society of the Spectacle

Michel  Foucault  The Archaeology of Knowledge

Bridget Fowler The Obituary as Collective Memory

Thomas Frank Conquest of the Cool

Hywel Francis  History on Our Side : Wales and the Miners Strike

Samuel Fuller   144 Piccadilly

David Graeber  Possibilities  ( The twilight of vanguardism)

Nordahl Grieg   Defeat

Bruno Gulli  Labour of Fire

Michael Hardt and  Toni Negri  Commonwealth

Tamara Hareven  Transitions :the family and life course in historical perspective

Alan Jafferson and John Goldman   Modernist Star Maps

Kjeld Jakobsen  The archives of the planet

Bruno Latour     Making Things Public

Bruno Llatour   We have never been modern

David Lowenthal  The Past is a Foreign country

Karl Mannheim  The Sociology  of Generations

Herbert Marcuse  Eros and Civilisation

Karl Marx  The German Ideology

Karl Marx   The Philosophy of History

P David Marshall The Celebrity Culture Reader

Alexander Mitscherlich   Society without the Father

Patrick Modiano  Search Warrant

Edgar Morin  The Stars

David Park The long history of new media: technology,historiography and ‘newness’

Dick Pountain and Dave Robins  Cool Rules

Victor Pomidetov (ed) Collective memory and cultural politics

Marilyn Strathern  Commons and Borderlands

Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters  L’Archiviste

Yanis Varoufakis   How I became an erratic Marxist

Raoul Vaneigem  The revolution in everyday life

Max Weber  On the routinisation of charisma

Hayden White Meta history : the historical imagination in 19th century Europe

C Wright Mills  The sociological imagination

[1] The survey was carried out between November 15 and December 3rd 2014. The  findings will be discussed in a forthcoming paper ‘ A  Time to Remember’ which will be first published on my website :http// www.philcohenworks.com

THE CENTRE WILL NOT HOLD : On changing principles of political hope

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity

W.B.Yeats  The Second Coming

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. Walter Benjamin  Theses on the Philosophy of History

Post election blues

Yeats wrote his oft quoted poem with its apocalyptic vision of  modernity  and its end time in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. It  parses  history as a  recurrent principle of catastrophe   in quite a different way to Walter Benjamin. Yeats cannot summon up an angelus novus  to provide a messianic motor force, but only a ‘rough beast, slouching towards Bethlehem’ born of  ‘twenty centuries of stony sleep, vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle’- an entirely different form of  invocation . Yeats’  poem and Benjamin’s counterpoint  came to mind in reading the many obituaries of the Labour Party  in the wake of its recent election defeat, and with this framing came a set of rather different questions.

How is it possible to live in a society whose dominant values you abhor, but which invade your everyday life and even your dreams ? How is possible to thrive under these conditions without retreating into some kind of private world, or else a nostalgic subculture which insulates you from the   very society you are seeking to understand and  change? How are we to sustain the courage, resourcefulness, cunning and fortitude  to keep on keeping on  in pursuit of  forms of social justice  we know will not be realised in our life time,  and without falling back on some utopian/apocalyptic  belief system?  What is there in our  political culture that supports, or hollows out the emotional, moral  and intellectual resources  needed to sustain struggles of long duration? And to bring the issue closer to home :how far has the Left succeeded in creating a counterculture of commemoration that offers a sustained alternative to  the  constant celebration of celebrity that marks the new spirit of capitalism,  because without it  there is no heritage of struggle for a  younger generation to accept or reject?

These questions have taken on  particular urgency in the wake of what is coming to be seen, perhaps too readily, as a historical turning point in the fortunes of  the labour movement and the Left  in Britain and  symptomatic of  a wider crisis of Social  Democracy across   Europe. How a political movement deals with  defeat is a test of its maturity  as well as its resilience and so  far the signs are not encouraging. There have been plenty of Jeremiads, a lot of back stabbing  and settling of old scores, and a few consoling extrapolations  from the electoral statistics to suggest that the result was not as bad as it seems. But whether it is  the fire next time, or the spectre of the  Blair/Brown Phoenix rising from the ashes,  commentators  are as united in the belief that now is the moment for a profound rethink about where the Labour Party is going  as they are divided on what form this should take.

I am going to suggest that one of the reasons why it is so difficult for political activists to come to terms with  failure is that we have lived through a profound but subtle shift in our general political culture, a shift which militates against incorporating the work of mourning  into the process of sustaining realistic principles of hope.  We have moved from a culture  of proto-modernism underpinned by a belief in historical progress and a capacity to distinguish clearly between progressive and reactionary forces in society,  to one of retro-modernity, in which the fetishism of the present and the ever new is underpinned by a continual recycling of the past and a pseudo-futurism in which everything is magically possible and nothing is realistically predictable or attainable[i]. At the same time there has been a shift from what I am going to call   low culture, a culture grounded in an appreciation of the  transient and tragic-comic aspects of the human condition, to a high culture which oscillates between  states of manic excitement and chronic depression, jubilee and cenotaph, prophecies of doom and the new dawn.

I am currently  trying  to trace out these shifts by looking at changes in the form and function of the archive,  the narrative paradigms of the memoir and the protocols of  the obituary[ii].  In this article I want to focus on  the impact of these changes on the cultural politics of the Left intelligentsia by revisiting   Gramsci’s   famous formula for surviving set backs and difficult times: pessimism of the intellect ,optimism of the will[iii].

My argument will be that this formula has undergone a radical inversion. Optimism of the intellect – the belief that critical  ideas operating within an intrinsically  depoliticised cultural realm   can nevertheless by themselves  change the world-  is flourishing in  conditions where pessimism of the will- the feeling that  there is little or nothing that can be done to radically  transform or create an alternative to global capitalism  –  is  pervasive, especially on the Left,  amongst intellectuals and the ‘creative class’ who work in the cultural industries [iv].

Fur Ewig: On Gramsci’s Legacy

One of Gramsci’s great legacies to the Left in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, was that he  taught us how to  fully recognise the importance of the subjective factor in politics, the centrality of  the battle for hearts and minds, which he defined as the struggle to shift the parameters and paradigms of  common sense[v].     My political generation – the generation of 68 and all that- grew up with Gramsci. He taught us as budding intellectuals how to engage with the world outside the Academy from a position that was not confined to its disciplinary protocols, how to become scholar activists, embedded in various kinds of political campaign – in my case around squatting  and the right to the city[vi].

We interpreted Gramsci’s mantra  to mean : analyse the  political situation in which we find ourselves as dispassionately as possible , look at the world as it is, not in terms of  how you would like it to be, but also identify the weak links in the chains of oppression or exploitation and devise strategies to attack them.  Like all mantra’s and  political slogans,  the very iterability   is both a strength and a weakness.  The compulsion to repeat  ritualises  thought into a formulaic article of faith which may sustain ideological commitment  in difficult times  but  unless you are careful  there is a risk  you start believing in your own propaganda, which is what Antonio Gramsci’s famous adage  is supposed to guard against[vii].

What Gramsci actually wrote in his Letter from Prison dated 19 December 1929  was this :

The challenge of modernity is to live without illusion and without  becoming disillusioned. I am a pessimist because of intelligence but an optimist because of will’ .

Gramsci attributed the quote to Romain Rolland, who campaigned tirelessly for his release  but he gave the maxim  a unique inflection related to his personal circumstances.[viii] The tragic dimension of Gramsci’s prison  writings  comes out especially in the letters. For him the act of writing is a form of  molecular resistance against the immediate  conditions of  imprisonment, and against   intellectual and political isolation. The Letters and Notebooks are themselves an expression of  optimism of the will  – the will to write  and through writing to transcend the limitations of his confinement . Mussolini may have wanted to stop this brain from  working for twenty years, but  Gramsci was determined that in this respect at least fascism would not win. At this  time  it  was easier to imprison bodies than minds and the use of special  psychological methods to disorient and break inmates spirit was still in its infancy.

For Gramsci  incarceration meant that ‘the boundaries of my freedom shrank until they enclosed only my inner life. My  will had been reduced to the will to resist’. Resistance, in the form of writing was his survival strategy. He diagnosed ‘spiritual deformations’ in the character of the other prisoners who had adjusted to their confinement. He regarded their obsessive chewing over the past as a result of the impossibility of making plans for the future: ‘such searching of the past becomes comfortless and unprofitable’ he notes. The real psychology of the prisoner , he explained in a letter to his sister in law  reflects his being subject to an administrative machine, an object without subjective personality, just a number, not even a name. ‘I am always afraid of being crushed by the prison routine, a monstrous machine which crushes and grinds with definite method.’

In contrast  his  studies in prison, his engagement with the past was a means to make something of value for the future. His imprisonment was an opportunity to write something  for posterity that he hoped would be of universal value. The phrase  ‘fur ewig’  ‘for ever’  crops up throughout his letters. It is a reference to a poem by Goethe, who was one of Gramsci’s heroes, and whose poem with that title argues that viewing life sub specie aeternitatis, as Spinoza recommended , is the only way to transcend the particularities of experience and transform them into a universal idiom, this being the special vocation of the artist and philosopher. Gramsci’s  sense of urgency  about laying claim  to a posthumous existence through his writing was undoubtedly driven by his knowledge that he could expect no public recognition or obituary. L’Ordine Nuovo had been suppressed  along with all the other left organisations. At his funeral there were only three people in attendance and one of those was from the secret police.

Gramsci’s  health was never good – he was born a hunchback and had numerous medical problems – and deteriorated rapidly in prison, until he was paralysed. He  was subject to continual fevers and became preoccupied with the thought that he was going to die in prison and never again see his wife or children. In one acute bout of delirium he records spending a whole night discoursing on immortality, but he adds, hastily, only  in a realistic and historical sense, ‘as a survival of all our useful and necessary acts and their incorporation into a historical process, regardless of our own wishes’. He writes as if there was  some  ineluctable process by which a life was enrolled in an invisible archive that perpetuated it. He insisted that posthumous reputational identity  was not dependant on  public recognition but on the objective efficacy of actions.

It is against this background that we have to understand Gramsci’s famous adage. His injunction to look at the world as it really is  a counsel forged in and against the  bitterness of a comprehensive political defeat. After all he had a lot to be pessimistic about : the victory of fascism and the suppression of the communist and labour movements. But this moment  is  situated within a historical perspective of long duration .  So defeat  is seen as transient, not final, something that does not have to be repeated, whether as tragedy or farce.  He uses an interesting, even shocking, metaphor  to describe his legacy to future generations:  his life is  the ‘manure’ which must be used to fertilise   struggles  to come. He is not offering an excremental  vision of history, he is no Luther or Swift,  and there is nothing retentive about his ambition for posterity. Rather, and  to update the image, he is suggesting we steam full ahead through the shit, even it  flies in formation, because he knows, with Marx, that history proceeds by its bad side, not its good.   As an existential statement this  is not a counsel of despair, but of resilience and fortitude in the face of adversity. In terms of political discourse, it is  a caution against both defeatism and triumphalism,  fatalism and voluntarism.

Gramsci’s   pessimism   owes nothing to   Nietzsche’s in The Birth of Tragedy where it is treated as an attribute of wealth and power, a luxury that the poor and truly desperate cannot afford. Yet he was influenced, albeit indirectly, by Nietzsche’s notion of  the will to power. This   refers primarily to existential  strivings  and ambitions, drives  tied up with self mastery  or sublimation, channelling ‘force’ (macht)   for creative purposes into purpose (kraft).  Foucault draws on this idea in  his model of power-as-productive. Freud, of course, distinguishes between Eros,  the life instinct or will to survive,   and  Thanatos, the death instinct[ix].

Gramsci was aware of Freud’s work, though he rarely  discusses it  directly. He writes ‘One’s real nature can be taken to be the sum of instincts and impulses and their forms of social regulation through which one comes to recognise them. One’s real nature is determined by the struggle to become what one wants to become. We seek to know what we are  and can become  and discover within what limits  we create our own lives and destinies.’  For Gramsci  then the human personality, the self,  was not just a compromise formation between the competing claims of desire and duty( or id and superego)   but  was actively forged through acts of will  always operating within the framework of a certain mode of historical individuality  belonging to a particular class, culture, and society.

Certainly ,for Gramsci, will is a drive, a quasi libidinal force. He speaks of ‘ harnessing ones whole life to a certain end, concentrating towards its achievement the whole sum of one’s energies and will’. And yet he recognises there is  a downside to this  dedication. As he puts it  ‘It can involve a certain egoism, of sacrificing ties of love, obligation, close relationships, of everything  that makes someone human  for the sake of a political cause  which aims at human  emancipation’. And then he adds in a sudden ironic recognition of where this is leading him : ‘ I have hopes that in a few more years I’ll be completely mummified’. I think he is not only speaking here of his own possible entombment in prison, but the ossification of the movement to which he has given his life, its  internal death drive.

However it was not Freud  but  the work of the dissident analyst, Alfred Adler, to which his notion of will as a central category  of human agency or praxis has most affinity.[x]    Adler’s notion of will- to- power is the will  to overcome or compensate for weakness, a creative drive to transcend the limitations  imposed on individuals by society, and sometimes by themselves ( the so called inferiority complex) in so far as they internalise its forms of inequality. For Adler, as a socialist,  psychological well being is linked to social equality  and human co-operation. He writes presciently in the 1930’s about the psychopathology of  capitalism  where the will to power has  become the will dominate nature, as well as  other people.

As for Gramsci, in his prison cell, he writes about sustaining the will  to survive as oneself under the pressure of persecution, fear and hardship. For him the vocation of  the politically engaged intellectual  was to apply  will  ‘to the creation of a new equilibrium among forces  which really exist , basing oneself on the particular forces one believes to be progressive  and strengthening it  to help it to victory’. So the ability to identify and distinguish  between what is progressive and reactionary is crucial, it  is the necessary condition for meeting the challenge of modernity, to neither entertain the   illusions created by its dominant form as embedded in  capitalist ideology nor become disenchanted with its deeper ambition, deriving from the Enlightenment,   to make the world a better place for the mass of humanity.    Optimism of the will here rests on  a belief in the human capacity to  meet new challenges, it is based on the assumption of  historical progress   and the belief that  societies  only set themselves problems that they have the means to solve, if there is the political will.  It is not, repeat not,  a gloss on  the Stalinist slogan  ‘ever forward, never back’ nor is it  underpinned by a teleological  model of history which guarantees   ultimate victory in a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

Perhaps closest in spirit to  the Gramscian  sense of ‘optimism of the will’ is to be found in the work of  Ernst   Bloch, especially  in his  great compendium   Das Prinzip der Hoffnung  and yet there are significant differences of emphasis. Bloch sees the utopian drive, the will to hope against hope, in all kinds of popular culture, from folk tales to  the evangelical religions of the poor and downtrodden, and in all the democratic  struggles for freedom and justice in  which he, somewhat hopefully, enrols his version of communism.  This imagination of another possible world is for Bloch   the warm stream which  constitutes   the pleasure principle of political  activism,  contrasted with the cold stream of Marxist analysis  –  establishing  the objective conditions and limits of possibility of these struggles, its reality principles.   Bloch looks forward to a new form of socialist humanism in which  the tension between these two  dimensions will be dialectically resolved.

For Gramsci too,  pessimism of the intellect, the objective analysis, and optimism of the will, the subjective factor, must be combined in a new synthesis. But he remains as suspicious of the utopian impulse as he was of popular culture.  His aim was always to analyse  the conjuncture  as it was  rather than  engage  in wishful thinking. He is as hostile to dystopian literature as he is to utopian thought, as offering   complimentary but equally one sided views of the world: the first because pessimism of imagination has occluded or overwhelmed any positive aspects of reality, the second because  it seeks to  escape  from the real conjuncture  with all its conflicts into some ideal world where they have been magically  resolved.

So when  he  sets out to translate Grimm’s fairy  tales from  German into Italian, as part of his programme of prison study and also as a way of building a bridge to his young sons, he is also careful to redraft them in a more realist idiom, as allegories of the  quasi feudal  relations   between peasants and  aristocracy, and to draw out the historically progressive aspects of all those stories where the weak outwit the  powerful.

In his frequent  letters to his sons Delio and Julik, who were in Moscow with their mother, Gramsci is careful to  allow not a whiff of  i pessimism to leak into the optimism that he hopes they  will inherit from him.   The strength he wishes for his sons, and for himself, is   about  the capacity to sustain an intense curiosity about the world, including the world of ideas, and, as he writes ‘the courage to  go forward resolutely to reach your objective’. And he sees the lure of the imaginary as an obstacle to this.  Here is an extract from a letter he writes to his eldest son Delio whose interest in HG Wells, and fantasy literature has inspired to produce a theory of evolution in which he imagines that  elephants develop big brains and learn to walk and talk on their hind legs. Most parents  would be delighted by this  display of inventiveness,  but not Gramsci:

Darling Delio

I don’t remember in what sense I was referring to imagination, maybe I was referring to the tendency some people have to build castles in the air or sky scrapers on the point of a pin. My own view is   that when we study history we shouldn’t indulge in too many flights of fancy about what would have happened if ,  if,  if , it is difficult enough to study history as it was…..

I think you must like history as I liked it when I was your age  because it deals with living people  and everything that concerns them, all the people in the world as far as they unite together in society and work and struggle  and make a bid  for a better life, all that can’t fail to please you more than anything else. Isn’t that right?

The appeal is poignant and  clearly a piece of wishful thinking . Motivated though he was to analyse the reasons for the failure of the Left to win the hearts and minds of the Italian people in the battle against fascism, Gramsci’s rejection of the counter- factual here suggests  that it was just too painful  to consider the tactical mistakes made by the Italian Communist party  which lead  to their defeat, to imagine , for a moment  that another outcome might have been possible.  In the aftermath of May 6th we can all too keenly appreciate his dilemma.

Part 2 :Politics and the ‘Other Scene’

The relation between  pessimism and optimism, considered as  libidinal drives and their bearing on the  psychological  development and  ethical stance of adults has been most profoundly addressed in the work of Melanie Klein, most notably in her 1952 paper ‘Some theoretical conclusions regarding the emotional life of the infant’ and her  book on ‘Envy and Gratitude’. Her model of the paranoid/schizoid and manic/depressive positions is  an enduring contribution to understanding the psychodynamics of  ambivalence in social  identifications and the structures of feeling that are mobilised by different modes of political address. She shows how the manic adoption of positions of omnipotence or omniscience is based on a radical disavowal of constitutive  losses or lacks  and functions as a pervasive defence against the anxieties which they arouse, generating  alternating moods of euphoria and despair.  Kleinians argue that  the most important goal of psycho-social development  is to  overcomes these infantile defences and their associated states of mind, to   recognise  emotional ambivalence, and  set in motion  reparative processes of  recognition and reconciliation.  This also means overcoming the  manichaen splitting of  the world  into good and bad objects,  idealised   and  persecutory  subjects, which provides a template for all kinds  of political narratives, grand  and not so grand, from conspiracy theories to chiliastic or messianic fantasies.

However the extrapolation of Kleinian object relations theory to political scenarios   tends to simply endorse  the liberal position of tolerance: there  is good and bad in everyone, seeing both sides of an argument,  all  conflicts potentially resolvable through  therapeutic intervention, mediation and compromise.  This  takes no account of asymmetric positions of  social domination/subordination ( not to mention their perverse internalisation in sado-masochistic phantasies) ,  and simply pathologises   the zero sum games in which many interest groups are routinely engaged. At the same time  the  Kleinian emphasis on the power of reparation introduces a link to issues of social justice and has been influential in the truth and reconciliation movement in dealing with historical acts of state terrorism . But equally the question of the irreparable , of forms of symbolic and actual violence which cannot easily  be named  or represented  let alone repaired because of their traumatic impact,  suggests  the limits of this position [xi].

Kleinian  theory does, I think, shed some light on the difficulties of treating  Gramsci’s formula as a general maxim.  Unbending optimism of the will  clouds intellectual judgement and  leads to wishful or magical thinking, a manic defence against the pain and frustration involved in actual struggles.  Can we do it, yes we can!. Equally ,  unremitting pessimism  of the intellect  demoralises people and destroys their capacity to act. Anyone who has done time in a Trotskyite groupuscule will be familiar with this phenomenon. Every time the workers raise their banners  high a great boot comes  down from the sky and crushes their hopes, the said boot usually belonging to a  corrupt trade union official  or labour party  bureaucrat  who betrays the workers interests.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the kind of dialectical tension  that Gramsci argued for.  The Frankfurt school   combined the most pessimistic  analysis  of capitalism’s penetration into every nook and cranny  of society and the psyche, with infrequent rhetorical appeals to the emancipatory potential of the masses  once they had been freed by revolutionary intellectuals from the grip of popular culture, jazz, and the fetishism of commodities [xii]. In Britain we have had a rather different scenario to contend with, which one commentator summed up as ‘empiricism of the social intellect, reformism of the political will’.

 

Bi-polar culture and the involution of hope

During the long boom years   from the 1990’s onwards there was a pervasive shift in our public culture away from engagement with  intransigent  complexities of social inequality  and towards a facile optimism based on an a head-in-the-sand mentality. The boom years helped create a dream world where things went on getting higher, faster, and stronger all the time, while public hysteria and its crisis management increasingly become the order of the day. Symptomatic of this trend was the growth of a vast apparatus of popular celebration; London, for example, had more than one cultural festival for every week of the year. The emergence of carnival capitalism involved more than the commodification of popular pleasures, and the forging of a new alliance between creative industries and enterprise culture. It was part of a phantasmagoric economy in which house prices were supposed to go on getting higher and higher, everyone would enjoy a higher and higher standard of living, and all this would go on for ever and ever – until of course it all came tumbling down.[xiii]

We might call this a high culture because its undeclared aim was to prolong euphoria indefinitely, so there is never any coming down. ‘High’ culture’ is centred on practices designed to produce oceanic feelings of well-being and oneness with the world, with or without the use of drugs; it promotes a hypomanic, high-energy, can-do ethos, which fetishises the tactile, the incidental, the visceral and the expendable; in this intoxicated state of mind distinctions are either hypervalorised or ‘mashed up’ so that they auto-destruct. High emotionalism goes hand in handkerchief with the compressed codifications of the emotikon while pathos collapses into bathos. High culture in its hedonistic excess can certainly constitute a counter-culture but it is one that is all too easily recuperated , giving fresh  impetus to the material dreams manufactured by consumer capitalism.  Where it runs up against complexity and contradiction, not to say its own limitations , ‘High’ culture ignores or circumvents the issue with a grandiose display of extravagant gesture or exhibitionistic  performance. One of its most  sophisticated manifestos, which inspired  many counter-cultural activists at the time ,  was Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus in which the authors promote the idea of the Unconscious as a polymorphic desiring machine  pitted  against  the forces of repression represented by patriarchal capitalism. As one of its  many advocates put it  ‘ the methodology  of Anti-Oedipus is not easy  to reconcile with the possibility of delving into depression. It does not know depression; it continuously overcomes, leaping with psychedelic energy over any slowing down, any darkness’.[xiv]

High Culture endlessly recycles itself in an attempt to keep itself high; it mostly iterates on one note, but it can also innovate through the medium of kitsch. Kitsch offers both a point of anchorage in this unstable world – it enables us to know what we like because we like what we know – and also defends us against its implosion, because it shuffles the elements into an ever richer mix. Kitsch in this register not only de-sublimates, but banalises the sublime: it has helped make ‘awesome’ the adjective of choice for almost every occasion. The 2012 Olympics   were a prime site of high culture and kitsch  in action[xv]. As the campaign posters put it,  it was all about ‘Living the dream’ as people in wheel chairs vaulted over Tower  Bridge, or  dived off the Thames barrier.   This dream was materialised in the iconic landmark  constructed for the Olympic Park, in which the hubris of London’s mayor  joined forces with the arrogance of a plutocrat who made his fortune out of asset stripping industrial plants.    Anish Kapoor’s description of his design for the Lakshmi Mittal orbital tower as ‘going up and up and in on oneself’ perfectly describes the psycho-geographical trajectory of this never never land.

Yet underneath all the giddy energy there is high anxiety, a sense that everything is hopeless, things are going from bad to worse, problems are spiralling out of control. No-one can stay high for ever. High culture underwrites a bipolar structure of feeling  which continually oscillates between the subjective correlates of boom and bust without ever finding a point of equilibrium between these extremes.

All this is in contrast with what we might call Low Culture, a culture that grounds enjoyment and celebration in an awareness of their transience and fragility, in the bitter sweet recognition that what we are most attached to we must one day lose, transitional objects are indeed transitory, much is contingent, and we cast our bread on always troubled waters. Out of this is fashioned a sense of life that is both tragic and richly comic[xvi]. Grounded culture contains many shades of meaning and feeling, and develops aesthetic idioms for their modulation. Low culture is slow culture, rooted in a gradual unfolding of the plot. It is exploratory, and delights in making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. It is at home in the Uncanny. This corresponds to what psychoanalysis calls the ‘depressive position’ in the sense that it is about integrating different aspects of the psyche, not splitting them off, but it is not all doom and gloom.[xvii] It is present as much in lyric poetry as in the blues; and it cuts across the now obsolescent distinction between elite and popular culture :  rappers like  Kate Tempest  or Kendrick Lamar are as  great exponents of the idiom as  hermetic  poets like  Geoffrey Hill. Unlike kitsch low culture deals with shit but does not become mired in it , even at its most Rabelaisian. It provides the low lights that set the excitements of high days and holidays in some kind of relief.

Gramsci’s original formula clearly belongs to low culture. But high culture reverses its terms. Optimism of the intellect  becomes institutionalised in the knowledge economy in the  form of  blue sky thinking. Capitalism  has thrown up its own cultural avant garde who push at the boundaries of the real and continually create  alternative   worlds. Imagination has come to power under the sign of the Commodity and the Consumer fest.  At the same time pessimism of the will becomes enshrined as a precautionary principle of the risk society with its penchant  for generating worst case scenarios.

On the Left there was also a pervasive pessimism of the will, a sense that globalisation was an irresistible force, and neo-liberal regimes of knowledge/power an immovable object ; for many there was no alternative but to go with the flow. This in turn required an optimism of the intellect which spun auto-poetically around its own  vortex of ideas, creating a  frictionless space of circulation for intellectual capital as it simulated or dissimulated the spectacle of resistance and revolt. The more sophisticated the critique the more vacuous  its  political prescriptions.

The New  Left produced its own version of positive thinking – it was called ‘New Times’, and though critical of many of  New Labour’s  policies, it too rejoiced in  shedding the ideological baggage of the Old Left. The Thatcher counter revolution and the defeat of the last Miners strike, spelt the end of the historic alliance between the left intelligentsia and a labour movement in which they had, however ambivalently,  pinned their hopes.  Veterans of ‘class struggle’  faced a choice: they could carry the cross of a now obsolete  ideology, proudly bearing the stigmata of political passions that no longer dared to speak their name, or they could exchange that burden of representation for an  all consuming interest in the contemporary  phenomenology of late capitalism. The younger generation opted for  an upbeat first- past- the- post epistemology   and discovered that playing the reflexive knowledge/ power games of post modernity  could be both  fun and intellectually ( and sometimes financially) rewarding. Others became connoisseurs of alienation, exploring the edgelands  and drosscapes  of  the capitalist city with a fascinated attention to detail . Cultural Studies, US style,  with its gargantuan  appetite for discovering subliminal signs of resistance in  the most ephemeral and unlikely kinds of life style  played a major role in legitimating this strategy  within the Academy. At the same time capitalism’s cultural turn, the growth of cultural industries and cultural quarters to house them in  coupled with the emergence of identity politics to offer  a new field of ideological  endeavour and employment outside both the Academy and the factory gates.

Finally   there has been the attempt by a new generation of Academic Marxists to create an ever more refined   scholastic apparatus, a  platform for High Theory whose power of totalising abstraction aims to  rival that of global capital itself [xviii]. Armed with a conceptual toolkit designed to ensure the purity  of their critique , while constructing   a cartography  of the Real carefully insulated from empirical challenge,  these mandarins of   dialectical reason helped to shore up the position of a dissident intelligentsia whose power base in the university was under attack and  which found itself increasingly isolated in the wider polity. A more grounded version of the project  traced the  global interconnectivity  of production,  distribution, circulation , and exchange, focussing  down on the travelling story of  the more fungible  commodities: the story of capital told through the analysis  of sugar or tomatoes, oil or flip flops, the logistics of containerisation  or    infrastructure technologies[xix].  Yet the more systemic the model, the more functional – or dysfunctional –capital’s mode of enlarged reproduction was shown to be, the more helpless and hopeless it left the reader feeling about the prospects of any radical transformation. In practice post Marxism’s cold stream of thought  left little room for the warm stream of political activism, or alternatively, split it off into a separate  hyper-valorised  realm of its own. In fact  the  disconnection of critical theory from the pragmatics of  actually existing politics, not to  say everyday life, has helped  open up a space for a new form of  hyper-activism , which reaffirms optimism of the will, but is immune from conceptual challenge .

The Academy was quick to recuperate a  movement  that might have destabilised its divisions  of labour, not to mention its hierarchies of knowledge/power   by promoting a discourse of ‘interdisciplinary dialogue’ as a site of intellectual innovation. A new stylistic idiom of social analysis and cultural commentary emerged in which elements of high theory and ‘high’ culture are brought together in a seamless web of interpretation,  often in the same sentence. Derrida  meets Disneyworld  in a roller coaster ride across the aesthetic wastelands of  the ‘smart’ city.   Increasingly optimism of the intellect has been sustained by an energetic mashup , combining subtle dialectics with crude thoughts .

Even those, like Frederick Jameson , who developed  a withering critique of the post modernist ‘trahison des clercs’ continue to subscribe to  an  optimistic view of  intellectual’s role [xx].  For Jameson, the contemporary culture of political dejection and defeatism,  the pervasive disenchantment with  the public realm,  was a function of a  lack of critical  understanding on the part of the   ‘masses’  of the nature of their predicament; their locally situated knowledge could no longer encompass or comprehend  their position in the global economy, they lacked the ‘cognitive maps’ on which to chart their increasingly de-territorialised conditions of existence. So   it was up to intellectuals to  create new ways of representing capital and labour  in which  these communities  could recognise their implication in struggles against  globalisation and its local discontents. Optimism of the intellect could overcome pessimism of the will.

We have never been Modern, or have we?

The shift from low to high culture  has had a major impact  on the different ways there are of articulating past, present and future into a narratable memoryscape, and has also changed our relation to modernity[xxi].  Low culture  is correlated with  proto-modernism.  The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs  destinies and the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   The capacity to identify and distinguish between progressive and reactionary forces   relies on this  chronotope which ultimately derives from the Enlightenment. ‘Reactionary’ is whatever wishes to restore the status quo ante  associated with an  ancien regime of  privileged entitlement; ‘Progressive’ is whatever wishes to advance towards a more just, enlightened and democratic future. This can yield a Whig interpretation of history which  optimistically  views  the future as an improvement  on the present  which is itself an improvement on the past. But it also has its negative dialectic in a sense of history as a principle of chronic repetititon, first as tragedy then as farce.

In  academic circles this model is pretty much discredited although it  is very much alive in popular historiography where it sustains collective  aspirations and social movements of every kind. It helps builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are  collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written.

People who have inherited a lot of intellectual capital  tend to be rather snooty  about this form of  popular historicism. Nevertheless I would argue that under  favourable circumstances this narrative does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where  defeats can be regarded as only temporary  setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future.

The second model  might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved, as Gramsci did,  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as  catastrophe.   History is de-composed into a series of   fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social  imaginary, as principles of hope float  free from any real  embedding,  encouraging  the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, or sponsoring various kinds of retro-chic culture.  Retro-modernism  is the preferred paradigm of high culture in which  optimism of the intellect is linked to  the ability to ceaselessly innovate in the quest for competitive advantage in the global knowledge economy; this   is celebrated as the flip side of  widespread political apathy or cynicism, withdrawal from civic engagement, in a word, pessimism of the will.

There is nothing new about the  fetishism of the new. It  is a well known feature of  modernity  . But the unplanned obsolescence of memory work, via the technologies of the  selfie  and instagram, and the ever more intense archive fever  which  attempts to grasp the evanescent present as it flashes past  is a relatively recent phenomenon. Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories. Their do-it-yourself archives, on and off line, create  nostalgic evocations of lost  worlds of modernity that can always be recycled. In the midst of this flux of images and events,  it is no longer necessary or possible to identify progressive or reactionary forces , since everything is hybridised,  at one and the same time a creative and destructive force.  Contradiction is  sublimated in a facile pseudo-dialectics in which everything is  both itself and its opposite.  This   was precisely what  Schumpeter predicted and regarded as a general principle of capitalism’s development. But this is no cause for celebration, let along psychic integration.  What Schumpeter did not anticipate was that this  dynamism, this apparently frictionless acceleration of productivity associated with turbo charged capitalism would engender not only  boundless enthusiasm for its boundless possibilities for transforming the world, but a pervasive sense of helplessness and therefore hopelessness amongst large sections of the population, including those who are its supposed beneficiaries[xxii].  The current epidemic of clinical depression is symptomatic; it affects  both the success stories who are nightly wracked by the fear of failure, and the losers who daydream of becoming winners by hook or by crook; both  are  suckered into the same vacuous rhetoric of individual aspirationalism in which neither realistic principles of hope nor rational defences against despair are available. Now that everyone is supposed to be the author of their own lives, we  are being lured into  a cruel optimism  which fans the flames  of  promise,  especially amongst the young, only to extinguish them at the first breath of reality[xxiii].

The working class has always had an ambivalent attitude to modernity[xxiv].   In so far as modernisation of the labour process has meant deskilling, and the displacement of living labour by dead labour, it has been consistently opposed. Modernity here simply spells redundancy. But working class communities and youth cultures  have also been enthusiastic consumers of modernity ; adults  want all mod cons in their homes, even if they dislike the brutal cut price modernism that shapes so many post war housing estates. The young people who  live on them want the latest ipads and smart phones so that they feel plugged in to  the ‘network society’, even if they remain socially immobilised  and rarely  leave their immediate neighbourhood. There is a continuous oscillation between proto and retro modernist positions.

Towards a new principle of hope

We can learn from Gramsci’s  life and work how important it is for winning the battle for hearts and minds  not  to split them apart, not to separate theory from practice, values from policies, politics from economics and the need   to engage in the nitty gritty of actual campaigns and struggles,to become in that sense  organic intellectuals or scholar activists. There is many a cautionary tale about what happens when academics  fail to do that, when they entertain a purely imaginary or phantasmagoric  relation to ‘the working class’  ‘the oppressed masses’  ‘the people’ or ‘the multitude’.

The history of  the British Left over the past half century has certainly been a story of ups and downs, with alternating phases in which optimism and pessimism prevail and these vicissitudes remain bound up with the fortunes of the Labour party , even if they are not directly correlated with it. Today the Left intelligentsia remains in place within the Academy, the arts, media  and cultural industries , and a few sectors of the knowledge economy,  although its influence is greatly diminished;   it is more disconnected than  ever from the labour movement and has only a marginal presence within the Labour Party. But it is being formed in new ways , outside the traditional  sites  of the professional middle class, in what has been called the precariat[xxv].

This term  has been used to refer to all those who are chronically , or structurally, marginalised in and by the neo-liberal economy  and who may never have a full time permanent  job or secure housing over their life time. But it also includes  those who are conjuncturally in a  fragile position in the labour and housing markets and for whom it may constitute a transient predicament or phase in the life course. Both instances are present in  the notion of ‘generation rent’  which has given a quasi- oedipal edge to  falling expectations , and  relates  to  deferred or broken transitions  from economic dependence to autonomy,  and its subjective correlate , an extended period of ‘adolescence’[xxvi]. As such it  conjoins  the situation of   NEETs  who are often following in their parents footsteps into long term unemployment, poor health   and unstable living conditions  with that of students and young ‘hipster ‘ professionals  who find that their career prospects are vanishing along with the possibilities of becoming home owners, at least until their parents die and leave  them their property. For generation rent, inheritance has replaced apprenticeship as the key to their life chances, while vocation- life as an unfolding quest for an inner, authentic form of self realisation –  has  displaced career, the incremental , as the dominant paradigm of the life cycle[xxvii].

‘Precarity’ is now a description of an ever wider spectrum of situations. It   affects all those on low wage  zero hour contracts, but also  the swelling numbers of asset rich  pensioners subsisting on low incomes, the army of  free lance portfolio workers and self employed in the service and creative industries, the disabled, the mentally ill  and all those whose welfare benefits are being eroded or removed.  It can also apply to those sections of the managerial and professional class whose jobs  have become increasingly stressful and insecure, and who, despite their relative affluence, may also find both life styles and livelihoods at risk.  The precariat now spans the pop up and the hidden economies,it  brings together young and old, middle class and working class, black and white, those whose aspirations to social mobility have been thwarted , those who have become downwardly mobile  and those who  are socially immobilised or excluded.

However before we proclaim the formation of a new ‘dangerous’ class a caveat should be entered.   It is clear that different but overlapping modes of insecurity are involved here : ontological, emotional, social, cultural, and material. Someone who feels their sense of  self determination   is being undermined  by  the impossibility of leaving home  is not necessarily coming from the same place as someone who feels their job prospects are threatened by immigrants from Eastern Europe, although, of course it is more than possible for that articulation to be made!  The complex configurations of contemporary insecurity  can no  more be read off from  class positioning  than they can be tackled through one size fits all policies.

The implications of my argument is that if the Labour Party is to reconstitute itself, to open up new bases of electoral support as well as regaining old ones , it must develop a multi-vocal  and multivalent mode of address about precarity that speaks to all these different constituencies, in terms of  the insecurities that are specific to them   while also making new connections through  public debate about what kind of society, what kind of city, and what kind of economy we want to live in. This cannot be done through   any conventional top down consultation  exercise; it will involve making widespread use of social media and public assemblies to build a new  political agenda  from the bottom up and bring a new generation into active engagement with politics.

The different groups that comprise the precariat not only occupy widely diverse ideological and structural positions,  they  are highly opportunistic in their political and personal choices and  this volatility is fuelled by the  bi-polar mood swings  which, I have argued ,  characterise contemporary politics ‘other scene’. In particular there is a strong pull to respond to frustration and wounded self-esteem by falling back on a narcissism of minor difference. The challenge then is to work through these multiple conflicts and contradictions, rather than foreclose them by appealing rhetorically to some  illusory ‘centre ground’.  We are in a moment of de-centering, in which centrifugal forces, for so long held in check , have been released .  Rather than  try to counter this process by asserting some over arching   principle of social integration  the task is to sponsor   new forms of bridging capital which maximise  social bonds and minimise the tendency to  retreat into  entrenched positions. That is exactly what Podemos has done in Spain.

To develop such a  mode of political address involves a return to the idioms of low culture, to recognise the diffuse anxieties which underpin popular resentments and to  ground personal  aspiration in realistic principles of hope, in rational defences against despair, and in the elaboration of what constitutes  a good enough life in a good enough society. It means arriving at a new consensus about what is progressive and reactionary , shifting common sense towards a version of Social Democracy re-built on  the four pillars  of  civil society: the trade union, the church or mosque,  the neighbourhood and community, the school and University [xxviii].

For this purpose it is important to re-assert the values  of  moral economy, to affirm and encourage forms of mutual aid that make up what David Graeber has  called, rather mischievously, ‘actually existing communism’  against their individualistic  appropriation by Tory philanthropy (the so called ‘Big Society’), or  the  marketised variants that  draw new lines, at once moralistic and economistic, between  the deserving and undeserving citizen.

We also  need to develop a new life course politics , not to return to one-size- fits- all cradle to grave welfarism, but to re-assert the value of apprenticeship and career as  biographical trajectories    embedded in  narratives of collective  aspiration and to create new incremental structures of opportunity and support for the precariat based on these life historical paradigms.

It is also important to  reconnect issues of alienation and exploitation, to assert the primacy of living labour over dead labour, to recognise and celebrate the  value creating capacity of both manual and mental work   over against the technological fixes for broken sociality proposed by global capital. Why else call it the Labour party?

As a simple but concrete example of the approach I am suggesting consider how a Living Labour Party might have intervened in the current celebrations of Magna Carta. In contrast to the official approach , which has simply iterated  a ‘safe’ message about Law and Property being  the foundation of civil liberty, an alternative reading  would  focus on the struggles for enfranchisement and empowerment that have used Magna Carta as a rhetorical reference point .[xxix]   Working in collaboration with local artists, the WEA, schools, youth projects , civil liberties and campaign groups the Co-Operative movement plus a wide range of community organisations the aim would be for each constituency to produce its own  pictorial/narrative  map of liberties and commons , past, present and future , incorporating local  places and events  associated with  popular democratic  struggles. Carta is after all latin for  map! Whether in the form of a physical or digital map, a tapestry or banner, each constituency  would add its own distinctive features  to a deep cartography of Social Democracy.  Not only would the project bring together different elements of  the precariat in a common project, but it would provide a platform for a nationwide public deliberation about the relation of civil society and the state,  creating   the grass roots conditions for the formulation of a new constitutional  settlement enshrined in  a bill of rights. Evidently  the Labour party in 2015 is in no state  to launch a  Great Chartist movement, but there will be other opportunities in the next five years to engage in this kind of activity, and to transform dead labour into Living Labour, without the need  for any second coming of Blair/Brown.

In these ‘winter years’ for the Left, when we often find ourselves defending institutions and policies that in a more hopeful climate we  critiqued and opposed,   the political  landscape is shifting under our feet in unpredictable ways. The risk is that Labour party may be too terrified of losing  ‘middle England’  to do more than dramatise its radical disconnect from this emergent political geography. Meanwhile  the blue collar  working class is deserting what it perceives to be a sinking ship that  has  got rid  of  its life boats. Fear of the unknown is the great enemy of hope.  It has been left to psychoanalysis to remind us that  the unknown is constitutive of  human curiosity and desire, fundamental to the impulse  to experiment and  explore[xxx]. Unless the Left can mobilise that will to knowledge, that optimism of the intellect, all its  manifestos  and analyses will remain so much  sound and fury signifying nothing , and only serve to endorse an ever more  demoralising  pessimism of the  will.

 

END  NOTES

[i] In what follows I have been greatly indebted to Paolo Virno’s  Déjà vu and the End of History Verso  2015

[ii]  See Phil  Cohen Archive that,Comrade: Legacy Politics and  the ruses of remembrance MayDay Rooms Pamphlet London 2015

[iii] For a rather different take on Gramsci’s formula see Richard Johnson’s recent article in Soundings.

[iv] See for example Slavov Zizek  Living in the the End Times  Verso 2011

[v] For an application of the Gramscian perspective to a conjunctural analysis of the British political scene see  Stuart Hall and Alan OShea  ‘Common Sense Neo Liberalism’   in Soundings Num  2013

[vi] See  Phil Cohen Reading Room Only:memoir of a radical bibliophile Five Leaves 2013

[vii]  See Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy :towards a radical democratic politics  London Verso 2014

[viii] See  Antonio Gramsci  Prison Letters,translated and introduced by Hamish Henderson Edinburgh Review 1988 and the article by Gary  Elliott in Radical Philosophy 75 1996 . The best biography is Giuseppe Fiori Antonio Gramsci ,Life of a revolutionary  NLB 1975. See also Carl Boggs  The Two revolutions :Antonio Gramsci and the dilemmas of western Marxism 2003 .

[ix] See Paul Rabinow  The Foucault Reader  Penguin 1993   and  Sigmund Freud  Civilisation and its Discontents Penguin 2002

[x]  See Jon Carlson et al (ed) Alfred Adler Revisited Routledge 2012

[xi] See Priscilla B. Hayner, Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2010. On violence and the notion of the irreparable see Judith  Butler Precarious Life: the power of mourning and violence Verso 2004. For a   sophisticated  application of Kleinian object relations theory to political issues  see Jaqueline Rose Why War? Psychoanalysis,politics and the return to Melanie Klein 1993, and Michael Rustin The Good Society and the Inner world Verso 1998 .

[xii] See Martin Jay  The Dialectical Imagination University of California Press 1996

[xiii] See Thomas Frank Conquest of the Cool University of California Press  1996 and  Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello The New Spirit of Capitalism.Verso 2005

[xiv]  Franco Berardi Felix Guattari :thought, friendship, visionary cartography Palgrave 2008

[xv] See Phil Cohen  On the Wrong Side of the Track ? Lawrence and Wishart 2013

[xvi] See Terry Eagleton The Crisis of Culture  Oxford 1993

 [xviii] See  Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkel and   Cartographies of the Absolute Zero Books 2015

[xix] See for example  Caroline Knowles Flip Flop:a journey through Globalisations Backroads Pluto 2014 and Keller Easterling  Extra Statecraft :the power of infrastructure space  Verso 2015

[xx]  Fredric Jameson Post modernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism Verso 1998

[xxi] See Bruno Latour  We Have Never Been Modern  Harvard University Press 1993

[xxii]  Bruno Latour ‘The Affects of Capitalism’ 2014

[xxiii]  Lauren Berlant Cruel Optimism Duke University Press 2011

[xxiv] See the discussion  in Mark Fisher and Jeremy Gilbert Reclaim Modernity :Beyond markets and machines Compass 2015

[xxv] See Guy Standing The Precariat – the new dangerous class and Isabel Lorey The State of Insecurity: Government of the Precarious  Verso 2014

[xxvi] See    Ben Little  ‘Class and Generation under neoliberalism’ Soundings ; also   Pat Ainley  and Martin Allen Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education Continuum Books 2010

[xxvii] See Phil Cohen Rethinking the Youth Question Palgrave 2002

[xxviii] For an interesting  discussion of the Social Democrat  project which distinguishes it from command and control State Socialism see Dick Pountain  ‘Connection Lost: the crisis of Social democracy’  Open Democracy May 2015

[xxix] For a discussion of the contemporary relevance of Magna Carta for democratic politics see Peter Linebaugh The Magna Carta Manifesto :Liberties and Commons for All  University of California Press 2008

[xxx] See Guy Rosolato La Relation Inconnu Gallimard 1999

Archive that,Comrade

 

Legacy politics and the ruses of remembrance

Foreword 

Not so long ago I had the experience of mentoring a young German student who was intensely curious about British culture and society and what had shaped it in the second half of the 20th century. He plied me with questions like ‘What was it like before Mrs Thatcher?’. ‘How does the situation of gay people today compare  with what it was like in the 1960’s’. ‘When did Damien Hirst  first become  famous?’ ‘How did people in this country respond to the fall of the Berlin Wall?’ ‘Have British people always not liked immigrants?’ I did not always find it easy to answer him without falling into what Marx called ‘dumb generalities’, but I did my best to point him in the direction of where the answers might be found. Quite often I found myself telling  him stories about my own political involvements when I was his age, in the 1960’s. After one such episode , he turned to me and said ‘Dude, you know, you’re  a real archivist!’  I did’nt know whether to be flattered or to read it as a windup up cum  put down.   But it became apparent that he meant it as a genuine compliment. After all  he came from a society which had tried to get  a whole post war generation to forget about its immediate past, and where opening  up the state archives revealed all kinds of  previously hidden atrocities.

It is, of course, very gratifying  to be asked about one’s history by someone much younger who is as interested in its political as its personal dimensions. Even the so called ‘selfie’ generation occasionally comes out of its reverie, looks about it and fastens on some figure that can tell  once- upon- a -time stories about what the world was like before it was born. Still    I had never considered myself to be a archivist. I had a small collection of magazines, posters  and other  ephemera from the period 1965-75 when I was active in the London underground scene, but it never occurred to me that anyone would call it an archive, or be interested in what it contained,. But then, I reflected, nowadays everyone is an archivist of some sort; in reaction to living in a throwaway society people collect all manner of things,  there is no object too trivial  to be invested with  special meaning  as a collectible. Scavenging for scraps of  memory  in the detritus of consumerism is the stuff material dreams are now made of.

When I was invited to  contribute some material to the  MayDay Rooms archive  about the London Street Commune movement in which I was involved in 1969/70,  it prompted me to think in more general terms about the  nature of the archive and its relation to contemporary memory politics.  This  pamphlet explores some of the wider issues  of archival practice  which arise for a project which has a definite political agenda but which also aspires to provide an open access  platform for political dialogue and democratic debate.   These reflections  are informed  by the experience of writing a memoir which includes an account of the occupation of 144 Piccadilly, an event which hit the world’s headlines for ten days in July 1969. I consider the political legacy of 1960’s counter culture  and as a postscript  have annotated the material  deposited in the MayDay Rooms archive. My personal perspective on memory politics has also been profoundly shaped by the experience of having to  deliver a funeral eulogy for  my adoptive soon  who died at the age of 33 from alcoholism. In an appendix I have applied  the general approach I am advocating  to a proposal for creating an alternative form of adoption archive.

I would like to thank Iain Boal and the MayDay Rooms for convening the deposition event and all those friends and comrades who attended for their contributions, which I have drawn on extensively in revising the text of the talk for publication. Thanks also to Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves, the publisher of my memoir,  for inviting me to talk at a conference of trade union and community activists in Nottingham, which first prompted these deliberations.

 

Archive Fever: coming in from the cold?

We should not be deceived into thinking that heritage is an acquisition, a possession that grows and solidifies; rather it is an unstable assemblage of faults, fissures  and heterogeneous things that threaten the  fragile inheritance from within or underneath- Michael Foucault – The Archaeology of Knowledge

As every reader of Heidegger or an English dictionary knows  the old word ‘thing’ or ‘ding’ originally meant a certain type of assembly. The point of reviving this old notion of assembly in a contemporary notion of assemblage, is that we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible  but because we are  brought together by divisive matters of concern into some neutral isolated place in order to arrive at some sort of provisional makeshift (dis)agreement. Bruno Latour – From Realpolitik to ding politik or how to make things public

 

Here we have two takes on the archive from very different perspectives on the politics of knowledge, but  which converge on a single idea – that the role of the living archive is to provide a public space of deliberation and debate, an alternative kind of parliament, in which traditions can be unsettled, ideologies contested, the familiar history defamiliarised; this archive is a way of bringing things together in order to take their existing associations apart. My question is this:  does this actually require that the archive occupy an isolated neutral space? Can it also  be an intervention which sets up new, and critically engaged forms of dialogue, within a political geography  in which the old terms of Left and Right, centre and periphery are shifting under our feet?

Secondly  does the process of archival reframing not also require a moment to which it is dialectically related and even opposed – a moment of conservation, or consolidation, a re-concentration  of what  has been dis-assembled and dispersed? How does this dialectic play out in actual strategies of collection and curation and what kind of memory politics do these strategies imply or articulate?

My interest in these questions goes back to a visit to a museum in East Berlin in 1980; the museum portended to tell the story of the creation of the GDR as a bulwark of socialism in the front line of the cold war. As you entered the large portico you were confronted with a steam locomotive, resplendent in the colours of the GDR. Children were enjoying  climbing into cab and imagining themselves driving it down the tracks. But where did these imaginary tracks lead?. If you looked closely at the base of engine you could read a small plaque which announced that this was one of trains which had hauled bricks to help build the Berlin Wall, constructed entirely with volunteer labour, workers  who were defending  socialism  against its enemies. A story then of East Berliners enthusiastically volunteering to cut themselves off from their families and friends in West Berlin, and to live in an open prison from which many of them died trying to escape. So here we had an artefact transformed into an actant in a narrative which its presence authorises and which is in fact a piece of state propaganda. The very materiality of the exhibit provides its alibi as a mute witness to the fabrication of a historical untruth. Another way to put this is to say that the object is falsified by what  it made to verify.

About ten years later I revisited Berlin in very different circumstances.The Wall had fallen and the Museum of Transcendental Materialism, as I nicknamed it, was closed. I had been invited to speak at a conference about racism  organised by the reconstituted Socialist Unity Party which had ruled the old GDR and was now trying to reinvent itself as a social democratic party carrying the banner for the ‘Ossies’ who were finding themselves second class citizens in the new united Germany. The conference  was mainly attended by party delegates,sad looking middle aged men wearing grey raincoats who had been part of the old nomenklatura but now found themselves unemployed. One of them, who  adopted me and I got to know quite well, had been a member of the Stasi;  Max confessed that the worst thing about what had happened was not that he  had become an object of general opprobrium but he had been forced to recognise that  his whole life had been wasted in pursuit of what turned out to be a nightmare. The opening of the Stasi archives had revealed just how deeply embedded the state surveillance system had been and the large numbers of citizens who had collaborated with it, whether out of fear or a genuine sense of patriotic duty.  Like many of his fellow  militants, Max had been a member of the Kamfgruppen der Arbeiterclasse, the  GDR’s ideological shock troops, and like them he had volunteered  to help build the Wall. To prove his change of heart he offered me a small fragment of brightly graffittoed  stone which he assured me he had personally chipped   out of the Wall. When I got back to my hotel  I compared it with another piece of the Wall  I had acquired from a postcard issued to celebrate  the events of 1989. It was also grafittoed, but it was of quite different composition. Perhaps it was from a different part of the Wall? Or was it possible that one of  these stones was a fake? After the fall of the Wall tens of thousands of people  went hunting for souvenirs, and a whole export industry grew up distributing  fragments as holy reliquaries of this historical moment  around the world. Once the remains of the Wall were protected, some East Berliners, desperate to cash in, began  to  ‘manufacture’ this little bit of history  in their own back yards.

There are two  conclusions to be drawn from this experience which are the starting points for the reflections that follow. The first is that that the knowledge power of the archive and the museum once  in the hands of the state is absolute, even if it is not directly employed as an instrument of propaganda.It can be a means of  censorship and forgetting as well  as remembrance.  Today, with the growing datification of every aspect of our interaction with the State and the market, as citizens and consumers we find that we are unwitting  and often unwilling accomplices in a vast operation  to monitor, record  and extract information about even the most intimate aspects of  our everyday lives; our computers and mobile devices leak geolocated data  about our  life style patterns, sexual preferences, social networks and journeys around town. If the Benthamite panopticon was the model of surveillance and regulation in early capitalist society, the virtual archive is the model of  the ‘control society’ of late modernity.

The second point stands against the first; it  is that the  significance of objects cannot be secured  by their mode of production or material provenance alone. Under hypnosis a bricklayer can  remember and distinguish between every single brick he has laid in the previous week, according to its texture and other features. Even mass produced objects have a singularity of use not  reducible to their social typification  so that any attempt to enclose their meaning  within a totalising frame of reference is doomed to failure. There is no doubt which of my pieces of the Berlin Wall tells the more interesting story; even if Max’s gift turned out be a fake and was ‘hand made’, the narrative   it served to prompt verifies its authenticity for the same reason  that makes its provenance undecidable. This uncoupling of provenance and meaning is the challenge of interpretation  As he said to me, with a slight twinkle in his eye, as he finished the story and pressed the precious stone into my hand : ‘archive that comrade!’

 

Counter-culture : then and now

The second prompt for these remarks was being asked recently to give a talk about my memoir ’Reading Room Only’  to a conference in Nottingham. The conference was organised by Five Leaves who had published the book; it brought together local  trade union  and community activists to debate the question: is there still a working class? No doubt Five Leaves hoped that the talk would help promote the book and sell more copies. This put me in something of a quandary: what on earth could a book that was about growing up in a middle class family in Bloomsbury during and after the second world war, about a classical education and the culture of the public school, about dropping out of Cambridge and running away to join  the counter culture of the sixties,and most all about  collecting, stealing, reading and writing books,  what on earth could such a text  have to say to a meeting of mainly working class activists, most of whom had not even been born in 1969?

The talk had been billed,as revisiting the 60’s. Along with a few choice quotes from the text,  the blurb raised expectations of a trip down memory lane, perhaps a debunking of the myth of the youth revolution plus a graphic account of my night of passion with Allen Ginsberg – something  which sadly never happened, not for lack of enthusiasm on his part, but an excess of prudery on mine.

In any case the circumstances in which I came to write the memoir were such as to ensure that these expectations could not possibly be fulfilled. It  was an attempt to write myself out of a very dark and dangerous place in my head, in Italo Calvino’s words ‘to find that which in the inferno, is not inferno, and give it space and make it endure’. In that,  the book, or at least its writing, was successful. It was also an attempt to integrate a part of my life that had become split off and not exactly repressed but marginalised and certainly did not feature  in my official curriculum vitae. Apart from a few old friends, no-one whom I met and worked with as a researcher in the Academy knew of my past as Doctor John, the notorious night tripper, hippy squatter  and infamous folk devil of 144 Piccadilly. However Reading Room Only  is not a political memoir,  at least not in the conventional sense;  it does not rehearse or try to re-open  the political or intellectual debates of the 60’s, it does not try to settle old scores. It could be regarded as an account of a certain process of political socialisation, of radicalisation,  as the public school rebel evolves  into the counter cultural provocateur, thence into a street activist and finally a radical academic. It is anyway not always easy to detect the undertow of influences  even in retrospect. A few years ago I was a member of a reminiscence group of 60’s radicals, drawn from both Europe and the Americas, in which we tried, through comparing our life stories, to detect some common patterns or strands in our various engagements which ranged  from armed struggle to  cultural avant gardism, from feminism  to internationalism. Perhaps unsurprisingly the differences in our experiences were easier to articulate than our commonalities.

Yet  even as I tried to concentrate my talk in Nottingham  on the  personal and political history, I still had to ask myself why should anybody  who is politically active today  bother about what happened, or didn’t happen all those years ago? Supposing for a moment that there is more to this particular conjuncture than could be retrieved through reminiscence work with groups of ageing hippies or retired left wing academics, what possible significance could  flower power, or the student protests against the Vietnam war  have for ’generation rent’? What could the children of post war affluence, the never- had –it- so- good generation of baby boomers  for whom precarity was an ideological stance or conjunctural  life style choice have to say to the children of austerity,the never- had- it- so- bad generation for whom precarity is a structural condition of their existence?.

The short answer has to be  that the counter culture, in its many manifestations, might  be seen as prefigurative of much of what was to come, and its legacy is still with us; it is still a tacit  reference point, both negative and  positive, for much contemporary political debate on  the Left. For some, mainly Marxists, it is a cautionary tale. It marks a historical turning point in which  the project of political emancipation founded on the industrial  working class auto-destructs,  the onward march of labour is permanently  halted well this side of the New Jerusalem  and  capitalism goes  cultural as well as global, and becomes hip.  The so called  youth revolution, creates a platform for disseminating  the hedonistic pleasure principles of consumerism  and makes  possessive  individualism – doing your own thing  – sexy,  addictive and above all cool.  Sex and drugs and rock n roll  may not exactly be the devils work, but they promote the  dispositions of creative self invention, underpinned by a whole  culture  of narcissism that post- fordism, and the just in time production of the self requires. Playing  it cool becomes the motto  of a whole ‘post’ generation : post modernist, post Marxist,post feminist, post human.

The other reading, which is mainly from anarchists  and the libertarian Left sees 60’s counter culture as a great disseminator of a popular  anti-authoritarian politics, a  generational  revolt  against  the patriarchal structures  of the family and the bureaucratic structures of the state,  and as such embarked on the quest for new and more direct democratic forms of self organisation. It is also about  an aesthetic revolt  against the  dead weight of  elite bourgeois  literary and artistic canons and tastes. A rejection then of   party  politics, whether mainstream or vanguardist, in the name of a cultural avant gardism embedded in everyday life. This version of the counter culture is celebrated as an incubator of new feminism, gay liberation,  anti racism, the environmentalist movement,  community activism and do it yourself urbanism:  As such it prefigures the anti-globalisation and anti capitalist movements of more recent years.

Now clearly what we refer to rather glibly as ‘60’s counter culture’ is a complicated phenomenon,  it is made up of many different strands; it is not homogeneous either ideologically or sociologically. For a start, the alternative  society mirrored the stratifications of so called straight society. It had its aristocracy, some of them the children of  actual aristocrats or plutocrats, but mostly wealthy rock musicians and entrepreneurs who bankrolled its projects. It had its professional middle class who ran its organisations, like BIT, Release  and the underground press, and then it had its foot soldiers, the young people  who flocked to its psychedelic colours and lived on the margins.

Each reading of the counter culture tends to privilege some aspects over others as symptomatic. Sometimes  opposed interpretations are  given to the same thing. There is also the distinct possibility that   alternative life styles  could have both progressive and reactionary aspects, could challenge  the patriarchal  bio-politics  of deferred gratification  and  be part of  what Marcuse called  the apparatus of repressive desublimation. Most of the accounts produced   about this period, in the form of memoirs, emphasise the positive, liberatory aspects, whether they concentrate on political dimension or the counter cultural. One of my motives in writing the memoir was in fact revisionist – to  insist that  the  university and the cultural industries  were not the only or even the most important sites of  social, cultural and intellectual ferment. At any rate the squatting movement and  what was happening on the streets, made its own platform of ideas and practices.

Rather than debate this in the abstract I  hope that the material I brought along to deposit  would enable  the street commune squatters movement and in particular the occupation of 144 Picaddilly  and its immediate aftermath to serve as  a concrete  test case.  Was this strange  alliance of   young  dossers or rough sleepers, and teenage runaways  with  beats, hippies, bohemians and radical students  a prefiguration of  what Hardt and Negri have called ’the multitude’,  a disparate assembly of those living a precarious existence on the margins of capitalism and occupying unregulated  pop up  niches in the fabric of the city.   Or was it  merely a  parody of a   riotous mob confined to a building, making a media  spectacle of themselves and distracting attention away from the real political issues of the day which were to do  with  the de-industrialisation of Britain, the beginning of the end of labourism, and of the white manual working class as a major and progressive historical force?

 

The End of Historicism ?  Memory politics, the dialectic of generations and ‘new times’.

To pose the question in this way, to see the counter culture or the  LSC as in some way prefigurative, to reference Hardt and Negri  in this context, is to re-describe  the past in the language  of  present concerns. Of course that is what historians often do, if only to demonstrate  the continuing relevance of their research and its claim on public interest  they apply contemporary  terms and idioms   to an analysis of phenomena  to which they are entirely foreign. How much is lost and how much gained in such translation is a hot topic of  debate  amongst academic historians.

In contemporary  memory politics, the Left tends to be wedded to the idea that history always has lessons to teach us about the present and future. Political defeats, like the Miners strike of 1984 for example, should not be ignored or forgotten, because however painful, they yield important insights into how we got to be where we are now. And this is sometimes accompanied by the sentiment that there is something heroic or redemptive about a failure if it confirms the existence and overwhelming power of the ruling class. Moreover, straw clutching, which is an occupational hazard  cum therapy on the Left, can sometimes yield interesting results. The  outcome of 1984 miners strike may have been a disaster for the pit head  communities but the unlikely alliance between  the hard men of the manual working class  and the gay  rights movement, as documented in the recent film Pride, while it does not turn defeat into victory, nevertheless points towards a new way of  linking  class and identity politics that has yet to be fully realised.

Funerals occupy a special place in the memory politics of the Left. The funerals of fallen comrades provide an occasion for the collective re-affirmation  of ideological faith, they create real and not just imagined communities of mourners around them; sometimes funerals turn into mass demonstrations in which a sense of outrage is tempered by feelings of loss; at others the slogan ‘don’t mourn, organise’ becomes the mot d’ordre, and displays of anger foreclose the experience of grief or transform it into grievance. Recently the concept of ‘active mourning’ has emerged in an attempt to find a new equilibrium between the extremes of being immobilised by loss and throwing oneself into political struggle as a manic defence against its recognition. Active mourning is about finding some kind of emotional balance between grief and anger through identification with both the victim and the cause he or she  died for.

But whether loss is acknowledged or disavowed it is not privatised; indeed in some cases  immediate family and friends can come to feel that the death of their beloved has become such a public event that it has even further separated them from their own feelings; they can no longer own the death of the person they feel  belong to them alone. Perhaps protracted campaigns launched by the next-of-kin and sustained by the desire to ensure that the victim of injustice did not die in vain are one way of pre-empting or countering  this alienation effect;  the afterblows  of a traumatic death are directed outwards to its putative cause : the brutal actions of an oppressive state, the class enemy,  corrupt or indifferent Authority, racial hatred or religious bigotry. In this way the deceased takes on a special posthumous identity intimately implicated in struggles in which they may, or may not, have actually engaged  but to which their afterlife is now dedicated. Fully fledged martyrologies, such as those of Bobby Sands, the IRA hunger striker, do however require some prior investment on the part of the movements to which they belong. Or, to take another example the  use of photographs of children injured or killed in the war zone as propaganda by the different factions in order  to demonstrate the inhumanity of their enemies  and win sympathy for their cause  may seem like a cynical manipulation, and at one level it is, but in situations where whole communities have been politically mobilised in collective self-defence, no-one’s life or death is their own.

Perhaps the most fundamental human distinction is between those who are simply deceased, whose death’s accomplishes nothing except the cessation of life, there is no-one to remember or grieve for them, and those who leave behind a substantive legacy, whether material or symbolic, and hence achieve some kind of  afterlife, whether of local or global  proportions.

This  idea  of history as an inheritance, as  something to be bequeathed by one generation to the next, whether as asset or liability remains the dominant common sense. Yet it comes up against another powerful  idea  – history as  incremental  progress, in which the  past is judged  against the present and found wanting. How much more enlightened we are today  than our Victorian or Edwardian forbears, how much less sexist, or racist! This rather  smug whiggish historicism can also be reversed – the present is  then judged from the vantage point of  the past and found to be worse – the Left mourns the worlds it has lost,  the world  of working class solidarities, brass bands, the miners Gala, industrial ballads, the impossibly close knit homogeneous communities. These two perspectives, in which past and present are used to devalue each other, are increasingly reversed into one another. For example  the vestiges of manual labour culture which remain,  wrenched out of the economic context which gave them a reason to exist, become the object of either romantic idealisation, patronising judgement  or radical disavowal.  In the process manual workers  find themselves written out of the script, condemned to a liminal existence as a footnote in a history that has migrated elsewhere, often by Leftists  anxious  to embrace ‘new times’.  With the results we are currently seeing in the rise of  support for UKIP.

This preliminary   discussion  leads us into a series of larger questions. How, looking back, in order to look forward, do we estimate the legacy of  the campaigns and struggles in which we were personally involved with any kind of objectivity?  Is  our experience  really likely to be of any value or relevance to our children and grandchildren ? Of course we must hope that the answer is yes, and struggle to make it so, but we cannot ignore  the dialectic of generations to which Marx first drew our attention in  The  German Ideology  :

‘History is nothing but the succession of separate generations, each of which exploits the materials, the capital formation, the productive forces handed down to it by all the preceding generations and this on the one hand continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances, and on the other modifies the old circumstances with completely changed activity.’

So if  history is regarded as a kind of inheritance or legacy  which is handed down  from one generation to the next, it is also, according to Marx, a transmission which is interrupted by history itself. In my view a generation is a special kind of imagined community based on inventing shared traditions linked to formative experiences and a particular life/historical conjuncture – 1968, or 1989, for example. It is a retrospective construct even though those who identify themselves in this way see it in entirely prospective terms. And because each so called ‘generation’ is engaged in creating its own traditions to mark its  advent as a  historical subject, it tends to ignore or reject the invented traditions of its predecessors. There are no ‘generational cycles’ in  history,  and   ‘generation’  in itself is an ideological or cultural construct not a    social or economic  force.  When  age  cohorts  speak and act   as if they represent a generation for  and to itself,  this is simply  in order to create  a platform from which to mobilise  a  form  of oedipal politics  against particular power blocs, especially where these are associated with the exercise of patriarchal authority.

Of course, there may be conditions where inter-generational or transgenerational identifications and solidarities occur spontaneously. Where this does not happen it becomes the special mission of the archive to build such bridges with as little pontification as possible.  There is more to this than hosting reminiscence groups of elderly campaigners  or getting them to transmit the lessons they have learnt to young activists. Rather the archive serves a meeting place  where different traditions and perspectives can enter into dialogue, and just possibly find common ground. This is what  MayDay Room is doing, for example by enabling the recent campaign for a living wage by immigrant cleaners in London to draw strength and ideas from the Wages for Housework campaign of the  1970’s. Similarly in some of the talks I have given around the memoir it has been  interesting to bring  the contemporary experiences of squatters groups in London   into conversation  with the street commune experience, more than forty years previously.

Certainly the rhetorical notion that one generation holds the world in trust for its successors is an attractive one, and one  that the environmental movement has made much of.  At the same time history- as- legacy  may come to be  perceived as a poisoned chalice; the younger generation blames its elders for having made such a mess of things ( just look at global warming!), while they in turn blame the young for failing to pick up the torch and carry on their struggle. As James Joyce has Stephen Daedalus famously say in  Ulysses  ‘history is a nightmare from which I am struggling to awake’ . Nationalisms, especially subordinated nationalisms are notorious for imposing a burden of representation (old heads) on young shoulders. There are too many archives which in the name of preserving cultural heritage or keeping the collective memory of  past injustice  alive  dedicate themselves to the pursuit of irredentist claims ( as in the Ukraine today) ,  or  seek to revive ancient feuds.

In more benign circumstances, historical generations pass each other, like Hegel’s old moles,  burrowing away in  blind  pursuit of their own direction home; it is left to historians  to make mountains  out of the  mounds of texts and images they deposit in the landscape; it is then the task of  the archivist to dig beneath   the surface  to  unearth  the traces of the journey which connect them.

We are used to the idea that the dominant historiography is produced by the winners and that an alternative history, a history of the underdogs, the losers, the people whose  voices and lives have been marginalised or suppressed,  is nevertheless possible and comprises a counter-hegemonic narrative. This history from below, which E.P. Thomson famously characterized as rescuing these groups from ‘the vast condescension of posterity’,  can be dramatically counter-posed to the top down history which features the rich and powerful, the big battalions. And yet these two perspectives perhaps share  more common ground that their protagonists  would like to allow. In both cases  there is a common and common- sense  notion of  history as a zero sum game, in which every gain is at someone else’s expense, in which the only  possible outcome is either victory or defeat, one person’s profit is another’s direct loss; yet this form of accountancy  is only applicable in certain exceptional contexts and conjunctures, which we rightly refer to as turning points or tipping points, or revolutionary moments, to which a bifurcated notion of historical process does indeed correspond. More usually it is a story of mediation, compromise,  some partial gains and losses, muddling through.

There is a strong bi-polar  tendency in Leftist culture, summed up in  Gramsci’s famous injunction to practice ‘pessimism of the intellectual, optimism of the will’.  The Left is very good at  constructing worse case scenarios , catastrophism is its middle name . Anyone who has ever ventured into Trotskyland  will know the seductive appeal of the great boot in the sky which appears ineluctably every time revolutionary  workers raise the banner of freedom only to be crushed under the heel  of the crypto fascist state  and/or betrayed by their own leaders But this depressive position is immediately countered by the manic. Prophecies of doom give way to a  New Dawn, Cenotaph is followed by Jubilee as day follows night.

So the cadences of history gets written and remembered all on one note. Yet it does not have to be this way. Frederick Rzewski’s pianistic anthem ‘The People United Will Never be Defeated’ consists of 35 variations on the opening theme, in which it is played  hopefully, relentlessly, impatiently, gently, improvisationally, crisply, tenderly, evenly, recklessly and ‘like fragments of an absent melody’.  To retrieve  the rich modulation of feeling  mobilized by its political project, especially in its more generous and Utopian impulses, is surely one of the most urgent tasks and difficult challenges facing its archivists.

Moreover to assume that history-as-success story is only confined to institutions, groups or individuals with wealth and power is clearly wrong. Cultural history, the history of ideas, the history of science is full of movers and  shakers  who succeeded against all the odds in changing the rules of the game. And as we will see in a minute this has a direct bearing on  the changing apparatus of fame, celebrity and the brokerage of ‘immortality’.

When it comes to popular history, to  the  way that popular democratic struggles, ( viz Peterloo and the Chartists, the Paris Communes, the 1926 General Strike,  The Spanish Civil War, the post war miner’s strikes   the poll tax riots  etc etc ), when we look at how these big moments  are portrayed in films, on TV, in historical novels, and how such events become sedimented in the collective memory of  a society or particular protagonists within  it,   then we see  the game of winners and losers  being played for much higher stakes; and so the temptation to play loser wins,  to  conjure retrospective victory out of the bitter ashes of defeat, is correspondingly high.

A case in point is  the legacy politics surrounding the 1871 Paris Commune. The reasons for the defeat of the Communards and the lessons that can be drawn from  it have been a subject of heated debate on the Left ever since. Theories range from the hysterically materialist   –  due to their  starvation rations – the Communards were forced to eat a diet of rats and cats-  they  got such bad dysentery that they could no longer man the barricades, to the  outright conspiratorial : the leaders of the commune were secretly in alliance with the Prussian army  whom they hoped would attack the rump Monarchist government in Versailles. Marx’s own account of  the events, which is whole heartedly  in support of the Communards and vitriolic in its attack on Thiers, has a different version of conspiracy theory:

The conspiracy of the ruling class to break down the revolution by a civil war carried on under the patronage of the foreign invader – a conspiracy which we have traced from the very 4th of September down to the entrance of MacMahon’s praetorians through the gate of St. Cloud – culminated in the carnage of Paris (The Civil War in France).

Over  sixty years later, a Norwegian communist and journalist Nordahl Grieg,   who had been reporting another civil war – in Spain – and had a close up view of the internecine  politics of the Republicans, wrote a play called Defeat in which he transposed that situation back to the  Paris Commune. The central dramatic issue which the play explores is whether the revolution needs to defend itself by adopting authoritarian forms of  discipline and control, if not outright terror, which negate its historical purpose, or whether it is better to risk defeat by adopting the moral high ground and exemplifying the liberation it promises. Grieg may have been in two minds himself but there is no doubt he gives the best lines to Eugene Varlin, the leader of the anarchist  workers. The apparent moral of his  play is that it may in some circumstances be better to be a heroic loser,to retain your humanity and a vision of a better world while going down fighting, than to embrace the  brutal tactics of your class enemies in order to vanquish them in what amounts to a pyrrhic victory. In the closing moments of the play, when the game is up, one of the character’s remarks ‘Tell me something greater to desire for mankind than the power to become inhuman’

When in 1949 Brecht was asked by the politbureau of the GDR to rewrite the play as an orthodox Leninist fable to be performed by the newly created Berliner Ensemble,    he would have none of Grieg’s libertarian ‘defeatism’. He wrote ‘ I’ll cut out the petty bourgeois nonsense and put some life into it, while sticking to the historical facts’. So he expurgated anything which  cast doubt on the  validity of Red Terror, and has Varlin say ‘If you want freedom, you must first suppress the oppressors and give up as much of your freedom as is necessary to that end’ – the exact opposite of the anarchist leader’s  position.

The notion of history as a zero sum game, in which playing at ‘loser wins’  is regarded as  a self defeating strategy is not just a Leninist principle. The point  was brought home to me when I had to  teach history to  a  group of stroppy teenage school truants from the local Peabody estate in Covent Garden; their  interest in the past was confined to last year’s top ten hits, and the record of Arsenal in the FA cup, about which they were very knowledgeable. I decided to do a series of lessons about   action packed events in which there was a  clash of contending social and ideological forces and a dramatic outcome   and which included  The 1381 Peasants revolt and the Kronstadt sailors’ uprising. This was in the as-it-turned-out naïve belief that their imaginations would be captured by the sheer excitement of it all, and their sympathy with the underdogs stirred by the heroic but doomed resistance of peasants and workers.  Not a bit of it. As one of the boys put it, when I asked what could be learnt from the Peasant’s Revolt:  ‘they lost Sir, didn’t they’. Growing up in a culture in which the playground taunt  of ‘loser’ touches  the most hidden wounds of class,  knowing that they had already been written off by the education system as losers, these boys were desperate for quick wins.   They had no time for the long duree, for the idea that the Peasants’ Revolt marked the beginning of the end of feudal absolutism.

Now it so happens that in The Poverty of Philosophy, in his withering critique of Proudhon’s facile historicism, Marx uses the case of Feudalism to suggest another version of winners and losers. He writes :

‘Feudalism had two antagonistic elements which are  designated by the name of the good side and the bad side of feudalism, irrespective of the fact that it is always the bad side that in the end triumphs over the good side. It is the bad side that produces the movement which makes history, by providing a struggle. If, during the epoch of the domination of feudalism, the economists, enthusiastic over the knightly virtues, the beautiful harmony between rights and duties, the patriarchal life of the towns, the prosperous condition of domestic industry in the countryside, the development of industry organized into corporations, guilds and fraternities, in short, everything that constitutes the good side of feudalism, had set themselves the problem of eliminating everything that cast a shadow on the picture – serfdom, privileges, anarchy – what would have happened? All the elements which called forth the struggle would have been destroyed, and the development of the bourgeoisie nipped in the bud. One would have set oneself the absurd problem of eliminating history.’

Well we know that the latter day advocates of the ‘end of history’  do indeed see capitalism as a success story in these terms: it is  the only game in town and its destructiveness, its bad side, is just a unfortunate facet of its  dynamic creativity, its good side. Schumpeter’s reformulation turned Marx’s profound – and profoundly Hegelian – insight in the tragic contradiction of capitalism, namely that capital could not produce wealth without also producing poverty, and that its drive to replace living, value creating, labour power with dead labour to increase productivity, if that project were ever to be achieved,   would result in its own demise – Schumpeter turned that tragic contradiction into a simple binary opposition.  And in doing so he took us back onto the traditional liberal roundabout which sees good and bad in everything.

Yet if we hold to the classical Marxist view that history proceeds solely by its bad side, by its negative dialectic, we can quickly find ourselves mired in a morally unsustainable standpoint. Do we really wish for the further immiseration of the poor in the hope that it will transform them into a force capable of overthrowing capitalism? Do we ransack history in the quest for ever more numerous instances of black oppression, working class exploitation, the persecution of the Jews, the discrimination against women and children, in order to join them up into a grand narrative  of heroic resistance  and triumph over adversity?  Or does this only yield up a series of  tunnel visions underwriting competing victimologies and predicated on the graphic detailing of atrocity stories which leave us feeling helpless in our identification with other peoples suffering, an identification which brings its own perverse, if disavowed, sado-masochistic pleasures.

It is understandable to take the view  that every historical event, every movement,  has its good and bad side,  is  at once progressive and reactionary, and then  leave it to posterity to judge the final balance of forces.  This approach, having it both ways, is  popular with many curators and archivists, who  do not want to be accused of bias and feel that  the relativism implied by showing multiple interpretations of the same event is anyway de rigueur in these so called ‘post modern’ times.  Welcome to the Museum of Dialectical Idealism. Like post modernism itself, with its fetishism of the ‘unreliable narrator’ I think that this is a bit of a cop out. But what kind of standpoint,  moral and epistemological, can we construct, which does not rest on some a priori claim to value neutrality or undecidability, yet  still  enables the archive, in all its inevitable selectivity of materials, to avoid becoming the site of endless ideological battles which may tear it apart ?

 

Let us Now Praise Famous Men and Women: Paradigms Lost and  Regained 

One way to grasp what is at stake here is to consider the underlying grammars of the historical imagination, the different ways there are of articulating past, present and future into a narratable memoryscape, what Bakhtin called a ‘chrono-topography’.   The first grammar we might call proto-modernist. The past is what is left behind by the present as it progresses into the future as its open horizon of possibility. The past only returns as what has been forgotten or repressed and is retrieved  by the intervention of some  special device or place of commemoration, where it appears as more or less teleological principle of continuity  – the plan or law or  higher purpose which governs the unfolding of lives in  historical time.   In contemporary academic circles this model is pretty much discredited although it can still be found in some archival   strategies. But it is very much alive in popular history where it sustains social aspirations, and social movements of every kind, especially those associated with identity politics. This kind of do-it-yourself heritage industry builds intellectual, social and cultural capital, and anchors it in place, in specific lieux de memoire, including those little archives of souvenir objects, images and texts which are  collected as building blocks of autobiographies that will never be written.

Proto-modernists are great devotees of material culture  and the cargo cults of consumerism, but they are also fully paid up members of the throwaway society. Objects and their associated  memories that are deemed to be past   their sell- by date are either updated or failing that,  binned and replaced by more recent acquisitions. The proto-modernist archive is always renewing itself and is unsentimental in its approach to collecting.

People who have inherited a lot of intellectual and cultural  capital  tend to be very snooty  about this form of  popular historicism, and, for sure, it can easily be exploited; when times are hard it can be used  to create   genealogies of racial or class resentment,  once-upon-a-time  myths of  autochthony (the Island story)  and post hoc, propter hoc reasoning (first the blacks came, then unemployment increased, so the blacks are taking our jobs). Nevertheless I would argue that under more favourable circumstances this narrative grammar does help build the internal resources of resilience needed to sustain struggles of long duration, where  defeats can be regarded as only temporary  setbacks, blips in the onward march to a better future world.

The second grammar might be called retro-modernist, in the sense that it regards modernity not as something to be aimed at or achieved  but as something that has never quite happened, is basically unachievable and can only be grasped as a kind of retro-fit. Here the present is experienced and narrated as a discontinuous series of discrete moments, belonging to an often chaotic synchronicity, split off from a past which never fades  but continues to  be re-presented and recycled,  and from a future which is blocked, occluded, threatening or unimaginable except as a dystopia.  History is now de-composed into a series of   unconnected fragments, mashed up by a highly unreliable narrator into a more or less spectacular collage of fragments. At one level this chrono-topography involves a profound  de-historicising of experience, a radical disconnect between past, present and future; it  amortises intellectual, cultural and social capital, which  decreases in  value over time, and  hollows out the cognitive and emotional resources needed to sustain struggles of long duration. Nevertheless it also opens up a space for the social  imaginary, for the projection of, usually dystopian, futures, and sponsors various kinds of retro-chic culture. Retro-modernists are great hoarders of objects and memories, which they value precisely for their radical disconnect from  the  present. Their do-it-yourself archives create  nostalgic evocations of lost  worlds of modernity that can be recycled for ever new times.

Each of these paradigms has definite implications for how the historical imagination is exercised,  in particular for the ideological apparatus  which organises claims  to fame,   and sustains  reputational identities posthumously.  Now that organised religion and its priestly caste no longer broker  access to immortality, now that there is no guarantee that good or bad deeds will secure appropriate residence in  heaven or hell,   we are left with profane strategies  for perpetuating a place in the collective memory; these   depend entirely on locally negotiated structures of peer recognition to allocate places in the earthly halls of fame and infamy.  To make a name for yourself increasingly requires  mastery of  the arts of personal promotion and public impression management; there is now a whole profession dedicated  to  enabling – they would say ’empowering’ –  people to succeed in this enterprise.   In this context the memoir is no longer an apologia por sua vita , it becomes an exercise in do-it-yourself obituary writing based on the principle of nil nisi bonum, leaving behind a life story which glosses over the more disreputable aspects, saying to the reader in effect ‘ this is how I would like to be remembered when I am gone’.

If access to posterity has to be negotiated through some process of peer recognition, there are still two rather different pathways to immortality, which Max Weber was the first to spell out. The first relies on the exercise of charismatic authority, the ritual display of an aura of exceptional capacity (whether  of vision or  foresight, or some kind of special  mastery over events) coupled with the ability to inspire devotion amongst followers. But how can this authority, so dependent on a metaphysics of presence, continue to be exercised from the other side of the grave? That is the special task or avocation of the followers, whose mission is to perpetuate the message  of their leader and ensure that it is neither forgotten nor subject to revision in any way. Just as the body is embalmed, and all its physical blemishes cosmetically erased, so too all the imperfections of the life are smoothed away. Historiography becomes hagiography . Not that this necessarily helps to consolidate the posterity.  For if grief at the loss of their leader initially brings followers together, the charismatic  legacy  often sets them at each other’s throats, each claiming to be the true  heir, the authorised interpreter.  Sibling rivalry is not confined to families.    Today, in a post patriarchal society, where  filial pieties have given way  to those of the affinity group, these conflicts find an ever wider focus as  charismatics proliferate, in the guise of  gurus, mentors and role models, each with their own cult followings, their own  interpretive communities, their special archives of precious words and deeds.

Weber argued that charismatic authority was inherently unstable and would usually become  subject to some kind of  ‘routinisation’  and that is precisely what the archive does,  it imposes  classificatory order on the  more or less chaotic fragments of the exceptional life and gives it authorised meaning,  an institutional imprimatur. In Weberian terms  charismatic authority   gives way to bureaucratic authority. Peer recognition and reputational identity come to depend on positional, not personal status, the possession of professional competences and accredited expertise guaranteed by a corporate body and disseminated by the archive. Now it is the normative not the exceptional form of historical individuality which is celebrated posthumously. The immortality conferred on the individual by the institution is a primary means of the institution perpetuating itself beyond the life span of its members.

The retro-modernist paradigm legitimates   charismatic authority as providing a quasi-mystical  principle of transcendence vis a vis  chaotic synchronicity, a sense of sublime genius rising effortlessly above the turbulence of the times to either comprehend or transfigure them; the proto-modernist  celebrates  the  ‘ organisation man’  as a more mundane principle of continuity linking past and future. The two strategies of peer recognition   are not mutually exclusive; it is interesting to follow posthumous  reputational careers as  the dead  oscillate between  or make the often painful transition from one status to the other. In fact there is a well established meta-narrative to ease the move, featuring charismatic rebels mellowing as they age and become establishment figures; again the archive can play a prominent role in securing such retrospective evaluations.    For example  there is the transformation  of figures like Nelson Mandela or Che Guevara   from being   anti-heroes of  armed struggle for the wretched of the earth   to icons of the liberal politics of conscience cherished by  the political class  across  the Western world. There are also many contexts and conjunctures where  individual exceptionalism and positional status merge, as for example in the ‘cult  of the personality’ where ancestor worship becomes a state religion.   The ‘genius’  whose work is perceived to transcend the time and place of its creation, and thus  becomes a legend in his or her own life time, and the ‘saint’ who gains immortality  retrospectively, are indeed the exceptions  which prove the rule  that everything depends on the politics of peer recognition.

The so –called ‘democratisation’ of fame whose advent was famously announced in Warhol’s  adage that ‘everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’,(and  in age of Facebook, we might add : to 15 people) has disrupted  these long established pathways to immortality.  It is linked to the space time compression of  memoryscape and the continual   capture, storage and retrieval   of  transient moments of everyday life in the portable digital archive.  The   recording of ambient  triviality reaches its apotheosis in contemporary celebrity  culture  with its permanent ephemeralisation of fame as trendinesss  or fashion.

The notion that everyone can  be the star in their own home movie is not just about a culture of narcissism that underpins   the manifold alienations of turbo charged consumerism, with its drastic privatisation of public aspiration; it represents a   profound crisis in the capacity of the archive, whether in its proto or retro-modernist forms,  to sustain an enduring space and time of representation for collective actions and events  which have as their long term aim the  building  and exploration  of other possible worlds. Archive fever is accompanied by a profound cultural amnesia. The planned obsolescence of memory work,  captured in fleeting images as on Instagram,  is perfectly designed to support the  just-in-time production of the self;  the fetishism of ‘presentism’ and the ever new   pushes aside  possibly painful perceptions of the past on which a resilient sense of identity depends. In a reversed form of Alzheimers short term memories crowd out the  long term and threaten to make  the archive redundant. In fact short termism and the quick fix culture is becoming a general characteristic of  both emotional and economic  investment strategies under late capitalism, a response to the  volatility of  markets and the chronic chronic instability of the life course. Why plan ahead when the future is so uncertain?

What happens when the archive tries to  withstand this hollowing out of collective memory by shutting out everything that might challenge or erode its hegemony?  This idea is  explored  by the Belgian graphic novelists, Schuiten and Peeters in   L’Archiviste. The narrator is a researcher in the department of myths and legends  at the Central Institute of Archives in Brussels and is charged with determining  whether a number of ‘obscure cities’, cities which are not on any official map but   are  the subject of much popular speculation, do in fact exist.  He sifts  through a mountain of documents trying to determine what are  apocryphal or based on hearsay, and what offer genuine proofs. He comes to the conclusion that there is sufficient evidence in the form of  architectural plans  and travellers’ tales to support  the claim that these cities, in all their immense variety, did exist once upon a time; however this geographical knowledge  has been officially suppressed because to  acknowledge the presence, even in the past, of these cities  would mean that the archive, which represents the collective historical memory  would have to be completely re-organised  at  great expense to the public purse.

L’Archiviste  is set in a world where it is still possible for a single archive to encompass  and control the collective memory of a society and  decide who or what is  historically significant and worthy of  celebration.  Contemporary archival politics  have been complicated by the fact that this is no longer  the case. The hall of fame used to be reserved for a pantheon of national heroes, mostly statesman,  war leaders or rich philanthropists,  who variously embodied the values of a  dominant political class that had no squeamishness  about  erecting  monuments to its own posterity  as a way of eternalising its economic  and cultural power. Yet  don’t let’s forget that  this is the beginning not the end of the story.  All those  statues  of Victorian Imperialists which litter the streets of central London  were certainly  built to last, and yet    the reputational identities they were meant to sustain have either faded  into obscurity  or been  torn to shreds by revisionist historiographies.    The quest  to transcend the all too transient  bounds of human mortality remains  as  imperative and as impossible as  ever. History is by definition a revisionary process.

If claims to immortality  have never been so contested it is partly because  there are now so many rival halls of fame, each of them promoting  its  own particular brand loyalty, each anchored to a specific economy of worth.  The moral economy  celebrates moral entrepreneurs, the market economy, commercial ones;  the civic economy bigs up municipal leaders and bureaucrats, the political economy, leading figures from the national political class;  the cultural economy  establishes the reputation of  artists, writers  and intellectuals, the knowledge economy  that of  technocrats and professional experts, while  the media promote the icons or brand names of popular entertainment,  fashion, sport and ‘the spectacle’. Of course there are many hybrids: the contemporary glitterati  seamlessly connect the cultural, knowledge and media economies of worth. The obituary columns of newspapers have expanded to accommodate the proliferating media of fame, and so have the numbers and  different types of archive.  Still it is not a relativistic free for all.  There is still a  power structure, ultimately based on the political  economy of capitalism  which hierarchises these  reputational strategies  and   continues  to stratify  claims to immortality  along  lines drawn by class,  gender, and ‘race’.

The new immortality brokers  distributed across  all these spheres  are nothing if not determined lobbyists, variously organised into charities or  foundations, professional associations, learned societies, institutes, commemorative  committees, fan clubs, political cabals and the like. Their ostensible aim is to champion the  cause of their chosen figurehead  and secure for them  the best possible posthumous conditions of existence.  These are the new priests of a  secular belief in  life after death,  they  practice historiography as a form of faith healing.  Martyrology   gives a histrionic edge to  hagiography. And while it may appear that they are purely   altruistic  in their devotion to their Great Cause, it is also a form of investment that seeks to maximise the rate of return on the  intellectual, social, cultural or political capital they have invested in their heroes.

So where is the Left in all this? Of course, for the most part, the contemporary Left  wants to actively dissociate itself from all the personality cults linked to   the Holy Trinity of  Marx, Engels and  Lenin (not to mention Stalin and Mao). The pieties of political catechism or even ‘politically  correct’ thought have no place in ‘new times’.   Instead the aim is to create an alternative, counter-hegemonic hall of fame,  populated with our own heroes and heroines, our own  innovators, exceptional individuals  who embody our shared values : Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, Gramsci if you are on the Marxisant  Left.  Sartre, Adorno, Arendt, Debord  or Derrida  if you are on its libertarian wing.  Socialist feminists have their own pantheon of Great Women: The Pankhursts, Emma Goldman, Vera Brittain, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Frida Kahlo and many more.   Is that then the role of the Left archive, to collect the materials which will stake these claims?  Will this represent an ingathering of all those who are otherwise marginalised, in death as in life, so as to challenge  the  dominant stratification of immortality? Or is it simply to mirror the fetishism of individual accomplishment  at the expense of collective  achievement  that is such a hallmark of neo-liberal  capitalism? Or worse still  to create new articles of faith, new loyalty oaths, new catechisms in place of the old?

When James Agee and Walker  Evans  ‘immortalised’ the poor white sharecroppers of the  Southern United States  in their  now classic book  Let us now Praise Famous Men they set out to document  the everyday lives and struggles of people  who normally only enter history as faceless statistics of poverty, unemployment and premature mortality. They certainly succeeded in their self appointed task of giving a human face to the Great American Depression. And yet the success of the book, what made it a classic, and hence perpetuated  the lives of the characters it portrayed  beyond their mortal span, was the peculiarly intense, poetic and introspective quality of Agee’s  prose and   Evans’ photographs. Without that  creative testimony,     these lives would  have gone publicly  unrecorded, remaining within the local confines of their family and community  memoryscapes; they would not have taken on the aura of emblematic  presences in the grand narrative of this epoch of USA history.

This  leaves us with  an uncomfortable question – does it depend on exceptionally  talented individuals – in this case a writer and a photographer, but it could just as well be an archivist, or an oral historian like Studs Terkel  – to  give poetic  substance and enduring meaning  to  the otherwise  unexceptional  lives of   people whose historical significance is precisely that they bore witness to the impact of larger forces which they could not control, and sometimes did  even not fully understand?

At this point we are returned to what might be called the ethnographer’s dilemma. As a condition of providing a space of representation for voices that  are otherwise marginalised or silenced, by  recording and amplifying what they have to tell  to a much wider audience than their peers, in other words, by giving them a platform within the bourgeois public realm, the ethnographer serves as an intermediary, or rather an interlocutor, who  interprets the  informants  to the authorities, and vice versa. Even if the ethnographer consciously adopts the role of advocate  rather than neutral  ‘go-between’, even if  the interpretive community is widened to include the informants themselves, nevertheless the actual process of archiving the material that has been collected  normally ensures that it remains within the ownership and control  of existing centres for the accumulation of intellectual capital. You only have to look at  the Smithsonian in the USA (coming soon to the Olympic Park in East London)  or the Amsterdam Institute for Social History to get the point.

One of the exciting aspects of  the MayDay Rooms is that it is precisely not attempting to compete with such organisations, either in the scope or the scale of its archiving operations, or in its modus operandi. Rather it seems to have chosen a more limited but more strategic path, in  focusing on what might be pre-figurative   moments and movements on the libertarian left  since the 1960s  whose relevance for the future development of an alternative politics has yet to be determined. But what kind of historical imaginary does this entail?

From realpolitik to dingpolitik : rethinking the  archive

If there is an alternative to the  proto and retro-modernist paradigms,  I think it might come from reconsidering  history-as-legacy, not as a way  of immortalising the past, or amortising our debt to it, but precisely in order to  re-mortalise and revalue it. And this bears directly on an existential reality. When we die, our  things, our most intimate possessions, and the  stories bound up with them, are dispersed. Books, photographs, objects, letters, CDs, clothes,  the whole paraphernalia of everyday life,  are  scattered like our ashes to the winds of change and sometimes to the four corners of the globe. In tracing this diaspora of things we can actually reconstitute the trajectory of a life, its social networks, the extent and limitations of its reach.  In the normal course of events  a lot of this stuff  is bequeathed to family and friends, or sometimes to archives of one kind or another, in the trustful hope they will be conserved and cherished ­­­ a remainder which is also a reminder of the life  that has been lived, the times and places it has been part of.

Now, although our precious things, the things which evoke for us important moments or people in our lives, may be fragile, and need to be cherished, unless they are tokens of the relationship we actually had with those on whom  we bestow  them, they cannot retain their original significance. Objects are promiscuous, they bestow their meaning on whoever adopts them and treats them well. So these remains  elicit a re-minding  in another sense, because they are  re-assembled, re-told, re- evaluated, re-concentrated  in a different narrative, they begin to function in another memoryscape than their donor’s; it is only on condition that they do so that they survive as part of a living archive, a history of the present. This revisionary principle holds true even when an archive is specifically dedicated to the task of perpetuating  someone’s memory. That perpetual revisionism, in my view is the characteristic dingpolik of the living archive.

One of  conditions of such a project  is the uncoupling of exceptionalism from individualism. This means  firstly to retrieve and depict the genealogy of events or movements which  in however small a way unsettle the power of  State or Capital, interrupt the flow of information and  commodities,  challenge  the prevailing  consensus, in order  to make uncommon sense of what happened – or didn’t –  at specific  tipping  or turning points.  Secondly  it is about capturing and locating individual life stories within   the trajectory of the   situations  they are caught up in. Marx’s  notion of historical individuality, which identifies transformative individuals and groups solely  on the basis of their  relation to the class struggle, is a crudely reductive attempt to connect biography with history, albeit one which, by the simple device of substituting gender, sexuality or ‘race’ for class, has continued to inform many archivist projects associated with identity politics.  In contrast the Left archive needs to link biography and history as an exercise in sociological imagination (after C Wright Mills) and  without reducing one to the ‘expression’ of the other (i.e individuall agents seen as  being driven by historical forces or social destines, or  conversely  history consisting of a chain of events whose prime mover  is individual will power).  The very notion of individuality, i.e. of a human subject always and already identical to its own thoughts or actions,    is decentred by history, which inserts  a principle of counter finality, of uncertainty and unintended  consequence, between  any given project  and its outcome The map of a life, however clearly drawn, is always more and less  than its territory. The archive should be about opening up that potential space of  under-determination.

By  the same token the agent who  ‘makes history’ becomes radically  eccentric to itself in so far as  its programmatic intentions  find their only centre of articulation in the processes which it  helps to set in motion but which by definition exceed its grasp. Manifestos have only tried to change the world, the task for the archivist is to interpret them, to account for the success or failure of these performative or pseudo-performative acts.

To introduce this principle of discontinuity as a bridge between past, present and future  brings into focus  the more or less violent  ruptures and  discordances which historical events create in the lives of those caught up in them. The life stories which hinge on the split between  ‘before’ and ‘after’, or which revolve  endlessly around a moment which is  too traumatic  to be properly articulated,  these, surely are the  raw material  of the Left archive; the aim must be  not  to record these stories  in search of some therapeutic ‘closure’, a happy ever after ending, or to vicariously open up old wounds. Rather than  inertly  bearing witness, whatever archival materials are to hand ( objects, photographs, newspaper cuttings, etc) must be embedded in the  scaffolding needed to enable them to be instructive.  They have to be usable as  navigational strategies  between a seemingly  occluded past, an impassable present, and an unthinkable future. The task of recovery   may involve reclaiming  historical rebels from  the enormous condescension of their canonisation  by the establishment; it may mean bringing  movements and events that have been forgotten in the midst of contemporary archive fever in from the cold; it may involve devising thought experiments in which the  counter—factual and the counter-intuitive  are pitched against each other in deconstructing  history as wish fulfilment. In any event there is a decisive break from both the structuralist  and narrativist approaches to understanding the past in the present.

From this vantage point, an alternative notion of the exceptional appears. Confronted with the brute facts of injustice, pitted against indifferent or afflicted powers, subject to  the catastrophes  of second nature, ordinary people do the most extraordinary  things; they perform feats of endurance, acts of generosity or self sacrifice, labours of love and mutual aid  that in more ordinary circumstances they would not be  imagined  capable of.  No-one who has been privileged to witness this glimpse of true human possibilities can ever forget it.  At a time when everything that is solid about such solidarities  seems to have melted into air, It is worth  remembering, documenting and celebrating such moments  when the a real culture of comradeship emerges  in what David Graeber has rather mischievously called ‘actually existing communism’.  Whether it is the Stephen Lawrence Campaign or Justice for Hillsborough, not to mention countless other, smaller and less well publicised campaigns, each has its own distinctive discourse, its site specific idioms of political engagement, its characteristic jokes, stories, slogans  and  songs, its passionate internal debates, its rituals of affiliation. As Graeber points out we have hardly begin to create an ethnography of such movements. A lot of the Left dismisses them as ‘single issue’ campaigns, ignoring the new affinities and alliances that are created, the new  translocal networks  of association  that spring to life. But it precisely here that   prefigurative  forms of a more inclusive and participatory  democratic politics can be found.

That is not to say that we should romanticise such instances. The emotional and ideological bonds formed during struggles can all too easily become double binds, friendships can also foster enmities. As anyone who has done time in one of the sectarian groupuscules of the far Left can testify,  the stereotype of the political activist as a dogmatic ideologue, a humourless ranter who lives only  for the next ’demo’  and is never so happy as when manning (and sometimes womanning) real or imagined barricades, is  not an entirely fictional character!  To counter this stereotype  we need ‘warts and all ‘ accounts, not sanitised or sentimentalised – let along sensationalised – versions of events.   It is only through such accounts  that any  thick mapping can be made of the shifting networks of affiliation and influence   connecting  and disconnecting the manifold configurations of  ideological practice   that make up  the field of Left politics.

Finally the Left archive has to address the blind spots in its own preferred    memoryscape, not just the moments or movements consigned to the footnotes in the authorised  accounts  but  the micro-politics   of everyday life that do not register on the Leftist  radar      because they do not adopt the kind of rhetorics, campaigning strategies or organisational forms  that are recognised as part of  the repertoire  of ‘doing politics’.  So in addition to scavenging in the dustbins of official left historiography, it is  important to proactively seek out emergent groups  and new practices, for example around  the commons. Small acts of Guerrilla gardening and do- it-yourself urbanism  are as worthy of documentation as  the big actions of  the  Occupy movement from which they often  draw inspiration.

Of course the fact that so much political mobilisation is now done via social media  means  that its documentation can be crowd sourced. In future a lot of the material collected by political archives will be in this format. Campaigning ephemera will no longer be so ephemeral.  And this also means that archives can develop new research platforms that reflexively monitor and collect evidence about on-going struggles, and sample responses to particular conjunctures.

or example I recently   carried out  a small on line survey   looking at how left activists and academics  of various affiliations  were responding to the spate of public commemoration around the centenary   of the start of the First World  War. I emailed   a short questionnaire, in the first instance to my personal network of friends and colleagues, with the request that they should pass it  on to  their  own social and professional circles. Quite  quickly I had a largish sample, broadly based  in terms of age and viewpoint, drawn from the  left/liberal intelligentsia, not only academics ( though they were the largest group), but people working in the cultural industries, public service, and community organisations. The majority were highly critical  of the revisionist message  being relayed through much of media – namely that the war was a futile and tragic enterprise redeemed by the heroism and fortitude of the common soldier. They felt  quite rightly that this begged a lot of important political questions. So far so predictable. But what surprised me was the fact  that the vast majority did not know about or just ignored the two minutes silence on November 11. I  asked what people thought about during this time, only to discover that the most  had simply carried on with business as usual.  A few  consciously boycotted the event either as an anti-militaristic gesture or because they were fed up with the saturation media coverage; the  few who did observe the silence all had personal memories of members of their family having been in one of the world wars, in many cases being killed or injured. The existence of such a large  unsilent majority   gave me pause for thought. In the light of  answers  to some of the other questions, it seemed likely  that what was involved  here was an act of dissociation from official  one-nation memory politics and its links with popular patriotism;  the responses  were essentially unmindful of the deep resonance  of the event and its aftermath  for large sections of the population, including those from the ex- colonies whose grandparents had fought and died in it.  Because the first world war did not feature as significant  in their personal  memoryscape it was regarded as politically irrelevant. In this respect the unsilent were endorsing the very cultural amnesia that  in other contexts they would be the first to condemn, while at the same time  isolating themselves from large numbers of people whose hearts and minds they are seeking  to influence. If only they had used the two minutes silence to reflect on that fact!

This little exercise suggests that one fruitful point of departure for a programme of research based in a Left archive might be  to  recognise  what it does not contain,  the aporia in Leftist world views  as well as the occlusions of  popular memory. By mapping one set of absences against the other, it might  be possible to establish their principles of (non)correspondence and  get a clearer picture of the terra  incognita  that needs  to be explored. The next step would be to issue  some ‘search warrants’, to identify sources of missing information. Of course it is entirely possible some of this information is hidden in existing archives, improperly classified so it is irretrievable. Certainly the way in which archives that might contain ‘sensitive’ information are organised has to be closely scrutinised. But most of the material that might yield fresh insights into political events,( photographs, diaries etc), is  either hoarded to be passed on to relatives, or not even recognised as being of historical importance and thrown away.

If the Left archive  is  to  provide a platform for critical scholarship, it has to break with  the whole culture of  research   based on  the  ‘hands round the text’ reading model in which academics   work in splendid isolation to produce learned monographs for consumption and, hopefully, approbation by their  peers. Indeed the whole ethos of the neo-liberal university, its promotion of  competitive individualism and academic careerism has to be   called into question. At the very least  this must mean   challenging the disciplinary boundaries drawn by the academic division of labour in favour of a trans-disciplinary approach to archiving.

In some ways the human sciences have created a Frankenstein’s monster, a hybrid made up of many disparate parts, none of which fit, but whose tissues have been stitched together into the semblance of a more or less functioning simulacrum of a human being. There is a part of this creature that works and a part that plays, a part that plans and another that dreams, a part that thinks and a part that is preoccupied with bodily functions. The problem is that each of these parts has its own exclusive interpreters, who act as if this creature did nothing but work, or play, or solve problems, or make rational choices, or have sexual phantasies, or tell stories, or make things happen. But in the case of the politics of everyday  life, all these things are going on at once.

The problem is not confined to the human sciences. It is the great failure of traditional Left political culture  to have produced a one dimensional view of what the political process is about, a view that may eschew the narrow electoral pre-occupations of the  political class, but which  nevertheless mirrors its reduction of bios politikos  either to participation in a more or less disembodied, bureaucratised  system of governance or else to mass mobilisation as its antithesis. But as Foucault showed us,  the administration of things  always  involves the disciplining of bodies,  and as  Raoul Vaneigem and Roberto Unger have insisted,  the re-enchantment of the civic realm as a stage for the enactment of direct democracy, (Giorgio Agembem’s ‘coming community’)  always requires rediscovering  the passionate and the ludic, the mythological and the ritualised  as  distinctive political/personal  idioms.

If the Left archive is to genuinely enlarge the imaginative  reach of collective memory   it has to register these  more subtle  dimensions of  human agency at work in and sometimes against  the crude thoughts of  political rhetoric; for this purpose the Left archive  must  become more embedded in the networks of communication, whether virtual or face to face, that sustain  everyday conversations  about  matters of shared concern wherever they occur : in the street, in the supermarket  or shopping arcade, in the workplace  and leisure centre.

Here it might be worth  considering how to use the new information technologies  to return to the original agenda of that pioneering archive known as Mass Observation. Before it got sidetracked into sampling public opinion for government  and doing market research for big business,  MO’s original plan was to document and archive  locally situated accounts of  everyday life. The founders, a poet, an artist and a photographer, all of them influenced as much by surrealism as by anthropology, were especially interested in capturing a popular  culture’s  other scenes, its affordances of the social imaginary, the material dreams   through which capitalism worked its special magic and the daydreams of other possible worlds; as a result the private  passions and  personal dispositions of MO correspondents  were regarded as being as significant as  what they  had for breakfast or thought about the political issues of the day, for out of this   idiosyncratic substrate  new structures of shared feeling  and belief might arise.

To map out these possibilities as well as to generate thick descriptions and analyses of ‘actually existing communism’  we  need to mobilise the insights of psychoanalysis as well as political sociology, put economics into conversation with  ethnography, enable historians to find  common ground with linguists. And for this purpose we need to identify some key concepts and methodologies  that enable such exchanges to take place. The Marxist apparatus  of dialectical rationality no longer supplies an  over-arching framework, let alone a convincing meta-narrative for research into the way capitalism’s internal contradictions are relayed simultaneously through  hearts and minds, bodies and body politics. In my view actor network theory (ANT)  as developed by Bruno Latour and his colleagues offers a  possible way forward for transdisciplinarity in so far as its focuses explicitly on the relay systems, the tracing of linkages and associations between disparate elements (technologies, environments, discourses, institutions) as so many formatting of power. ANT also implies a  definite strategy  for organising the archive to  give priority to the potential and actual connections to be made between disparate items, rather than privileging their collation into fixed or a priori thematic or analytic categories. In Basil Bernstein’s terms this implies weak classification of already coded knowledge and strong framing of  the  tacit properties of an emergent chrono-topography.

ANT’s current vogue comes from the fact that it is a methodology ideally suited to  track the  globalisation of knowledge/power relations through its dissemination via  trans-local conduits. But let’s be clear here: the Internet, the chief engine of globalisation and the knowledge economy, is not and cannot be an archive. It may store unimaginably vast amounts of digitalised data, it may accelerate the information flow, but it cannot do what an archive does, which is  to  insert  documents within a framework of  interpretation, a community of practice that gives them new meaning. For example,   Albert Khan’s  project for an  Archives of the Planet, dispatched photographers to the four corners of the globe in search of documentary evidence about the impact of modern technologies on pre-modern ways of life. He wanted to capture visually what was happening to ordinary people’s lives on the cusp of momentous change in the 1930s. It is the largest collection of early colour photographs in the world, but in scope and scale it cannot rival what is available on Google Images. But it remains the only archive of its kind because the collection is inspired and organised around Khan’s internationalist vision.

At the level of archival  practice, the challenge to the Academy, as Iain Boal has pointed out,  requires actively socialising  the process of acquiring, classifying, reading  and re-presenting materials,   involving an ongoing   collaboration between donors and recipients as members of a single  interpretive community. This can take many forms : the co-curation of exhibitions, public debates,  dialogue  between different generations of activists, making learning resources  for schools, collective videography and so on.  However it is not always easy to suspend, let alone reverse,  prevailing knowledge/power relations, even if  some of their more alienating affects can be mitigated.

It is worth considering here the role of the Left archive  as an interface between the Dissenting Academy  and the communities whose causes it espouses.   With the demise of the public intellectual, or rather their transformation into  what Régis Debray has called the mediocracy –  media savvy academics with  specialist expertise – the role of the scholar-activist has inevitably been confined to the margins of  cultural life. The Left archive may indeed be one of the few places left where something like an intellectual commons  can be sustained in which  people without formal academic qualifications can play  a leading role. Some of the most creative archivists turn out to be auto-didacts, because the obsessionality which is such a feature of collecting  can here be put to  constructive use. Still we should not ignore the fact that the engagement of the Academy – and the Archive-  in community politics  may result in a certain  gentrification of urban social movements, including those which are campaigning against the invasion  of their areas by students, academics and creative professionals from the knowledge economy.

The kind of journey I have been describing does not  go from A to B along a prescribed path  following  an existing  route map; rather it is one which imposes its own unpredictable line of desire,  creates its own hitherto unmapped waypoints. The idea that archives are improvisatory structures has been pioneered by Infoshop 56a  in London, and the Interference Archive in New York. Yet this is only one side of the story. The conservation of materials  usually requires  suitable storage facilities,  trained staff,  specialised equipment and above all a long term commitment. This delicate balancing act, between the capacity to respond pro-actively to emergent areas  and the need to preserve and consolidate existing  holdings,  is  a perennial issue for museums. Most resolve it by leavening the permanent collection with  temporary  exhibitions. Public archives  can  draw selectively on their holdings in a  rotating front of house display programme.  But the tension between bridging and bonding capital remains.

One way of reconciling these conflicting priorities  lies  in exploring the notion of the erratic archive whose curation policy mirrors  both senses of our mode of   dwelling in the world : lingering over moments and materials  that are usually skimmed or abridged, if not totally ignored,  and    hop, skip and jumping over the major, already well documented  landmarks.  say  of  labour history or women’s history, in search of lost causes or hidden singularities that  feature on a deeper map  drawn by an equally erratic Marxism: a revisionary Marxism whose errance  includes  both a recognition of its own tragic mistakes and a commitment to always go beyond itself in the attempt to grasp what  eludes it – the true movement of history.

Perhaps it is worth pausing here to consider the distinction between memory politics of the museum and the archive, especially since their forms and functions are being increasingly conflated and  subsumed under an ever   more totalising aesthetics of curation. The museum’s primary role is public display and interpretation of artefacts and  its acquisitions  policy is usually subordinated to that; whereas the archive concentrates on accumulating records and other documents and display has a secondary role.  Of course there has always been some overlap – museums often contain archives, and some archives have a museological  dimension. However the advent of digital technologies has profoundly changed these roles. It is not just that collections, whether of  artefacts or records, can now be  made accessible on line, but that the wear and tear that comes with  frequent handling of materials can be  greatly reduced and preservation costs   correspondingly diminished. Moreover the  size of an archival collection no longer has to depend on the amount of storage or display space and it  is also  easier to organise ‘pop up’ exhibitions  using inter-active visual display technologies. The virtual archive, in the form of  the personal or organisational website  has  opened up an erratic  presence in cyberspace for many  do-it- yourself archivists   who could never afford the infrastructure costs needed to  sustain  a full blown  institutional apparatus.

That is the good news. But there is also a down side to the digital datification process. The virtual museum and on line archive is no substitute for the real thing. We still need ‘lieux de memoire’  which we can visit and invest with our own memories, places with their own unique characteristics  where we can get hands on experience of  reading original documents, have  face-to-face encounters  with staff and  meet our fellow researchers over lunch to discuss  common enthusiasms, share the latest gossip  and generally sustain the intellectual commons as a community of practice. The importance of these convivial sites is underscored by the  very real danger   that the software programmes needed to read older digitalised  documents  are rapidly becoming obsolete so that  large amounts of social data stored in virtual archives   will eventually be un-retrievable. No one, apart from future historians of  popular culture,  will lose any sleep if ‘bit rot’ attacks the  instant  archiving of  everyday life which our digital devices accomplish as part of ‘selfie’ culture,  or even  if the ever expanding inventories  of  our ever accelerating production of texts stored on our personal computers are made redundant. But there is a broader issue at stake here.

It used to be technophobes who proclaimed  that  digital culture  was responsible for the end of  civilisation as they knew it, and was going to produce a generation of  zombified cyborgs. But now these same concerns  are being voiced by digital activists themselves, who are beginning to argue that  the so called ‘smart city’ agenda will actually accomplish a profound de-skilling of place intelligence, and lead to the creation of cities without collective memoryscapes.  Already there are signs that the citizens of cyberspace  are beginning to rebel against the hollowing out of experience by  the ‘quantified self’ created through social media. The current fetishism of ‘curation ’, its application to everything from the design of exhibitions to lists of sampled music on Spotify,  speaks to the pervasive desire to wrest from – or impose upon – what is otherwise just another consumerist  mash up   some  sense of personal signature and life-historical value. There may be more common ground   between  the epistemic priorities of the  archivist and the ontological needs  of the consumer than   either have  suspected.

We are all  time travellers and  we also know that time’s arrow does not, all appearances to the contrary, fly in one direction or follow a straight line. If we live long enough to come from a place that has become a foreign country simply  because it no longer issues passports recognised by the current arbiters of  significance, then its remembrance, of necessity, becomes an act  of  trespass, criss-crossing  all those invisible  lines in the sands of time which contemporary historians have drawn to get their bearings : The 1960s, the Thatcher years, The Digital Age, The Post War, the Post Millenium, the noughties,  Generation Rent, so many fixed points of reference designed to capture the zeitgeist but which mostly fail to engage the  actual periodicities  informing  the unfolding of  life histories or events. To trace the erratic course of biographies and histories  at the contingent points where they intersect to personal and political effect, and to configure those points into new maps or networks of meaning must surely be  what the Left archive is all about.

There is always the danger of a dingpolitik of the archive which become just another exercise in reification. The very notion of a ‘deposit’ intimates  the inert quasi-geological stratification  of ossified material  into different levels of significance, a sedimentation of the historical process into fixed layers of  meaning to be decoded and read like a palimpsest. There is an aura of the uncanny that hovers around the ghosts in the machinery of the archive, all those material and textual  traces of the lives of the dead scrupulously  re-animated to provide a graphic  three dimensional portrait of  times past. The museological ambitions of the archivist certainly tend to pull curatorial practice  towards a form of cultural taxidermy. That is why I have stressed the importance of   the erratic, the continual  need to improvise and destabilise meanings in the midst of an enterprise that is so vitally concerned to find within the inferno of history, that which is not inferno, and give it space, make it endure.

In the shadow of Marx’s monumental tomb  in  Highgate Cemetery and in the midst of  so many luminaries of the revolutionary Left,  there is a small plaque to a local resident, a Mr Griffiths, who was famous only to his family  and friends for his love of poetry as well as his devotion to improving the lot of his fellow working man. According to his epitaph  he ‘fell asleep’ and his life has remained dormant and unsung ever since.  Those  who come to  worship at the shrine of Marxism  do not notice this little overgrown plot, or consider for a moment what its overlooking might tell us about the  fate of the international communist movement in the 20th century.  But it is the unearthing of stories such as this which, it seems to me, allow us to untangle the knots tied by the ruses of political remembrance and   give to  the Left archive its purchase on the future.

 Postscript:  Ten Days that shook my world – 144  Picadilly between spectacle and  trauma

In addition to the swarm of personal memories  they evoke, the objects I brought with me  to deposit in the MayDay Rooms archive  play  host  to a whole gamut of  media  myths which are ripe for de-construction. So In my view, this material  should not  be treated as a relic, a ritual object of commemoration, but rather an actant  in an emergent network of possible interpretations, clues as to what their   still-to-be-figured  significance  might be.

                        

  I have written about  the sociology of the street commune squats  in the opening chapter of ‘Rethinking the Youth Question’ and also about its personal impact   in my memoir.  But whatever  claims to  ‘social objectivity’  or  ‘authenticity’  these texts might variously have, there is still another story waiting to be told when  the graphic   traces of these events are re-presented to people who  may either have been directly involved in them, or observed  what was going on at a distance, or simply be curious to learn what all the fuss was about.

My first exhibit is not one. My favourite   BIFF cartoon was never drawn but it shows a balding lecturer standing in front a group of very  bored  looking students, saying  ‘Did I ever tell you about the time I spent in a hippy squatters commune in 1968 – it was a moment of profound detournement  but unfortunately I had my sleeping bag nicked.’  Like any urban social  movement the street communes generated their own idiom, their own slogans, their own iconography, if you like, their own subculture, although in this case  the squats drew in young people of many subcultural allegiances and of none. The Left did not quite know what to make of us. After all we were neither students or workers. When we turned up at a conference of the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF) at the Roundhouse in the naive belief that we  would gain their support for our campaign against police harassment and the ‘sus’ laws, we were quickly thrown out   amidst shouts of ‘ what do you produce? Syringes?’ The Libertarian Left was more accommodating, and there were personal as well as ideological links to the English Situationists grouped around ‘heatwave’ and   King Mob Echo. Still, Notting Hill where the majority of the English ‘sits’ were based was a long way from ‘the Dilly’ in terms of both political and  cultural  geography. The family squatting movement led by Ron Bailey was quick to dissociate itself from  our  occupations, worried no doubt that they would be tarred with the same media brush as  drop out/down and outs sponging off the State. In fact we did them a favour  because the media, and especially the Tory press drew a firm distinction between  ‘respectable’ family squatters, and the disreputable scroungers who had had the effrontery to take up residence in the Queen Mother’s old palace.

My second exhibit is only slightly less imaginary. It consists of some pages from a novel written about 144  by Sam Fuller, who had the idea of making a movie about it, but perhaps fortunately never did. It would probably  have been a cross between the gothic imaginary of Shock Corridor and a film noir like Street of No Return. In the book, which is based on media reports, only  more sexed up,  Doctor John is played by Robert, a rather earnest, intellectual hippy with pacifist tendencies, who goes off the rails. In the movie he would probably have been played by Peter (Easy Rider ) Fonda!

The following excerpt,from the final chapter, gives a flavour of the thing :

Lover Boy stared at Robert, surprised, and gasped ‘You’re crazy’!

In sickening slow motion Lover Boy crumpled backwards and lay sprawled under the red tipped sword in Robert’s hand. Several drops of blood fell on Lover Boy’s eye patch. The kid with the tattooed cock  looked dead. I crawled through darting kicking feet to Lover Boy and in the middle of the ear-shattering fighting I explored with shaky fingers. His one glassy eye stared up at me in frozen shock.

I looked around. No one else had seen the action.

No one !

Above me stood Robert. There was no expression in his face.

Then a voice rose above the confusion. It kept on shouting, over and over again : “ They’re coming!”

It was Girish. “The cops are coming!”

Angels fled to defend the squat. Through a window I saw a Scotland Yard ncommanders posting policemen outside 144. About two thousand people were in the crowd. Heavy traffic halted, curious drivers abandoned cars to join the crowd. The police were vainly trying to keep the traffic moving. An Inspector entered the forecourt even as squatters poured across the drawbridge  to escape arrest. The Inspector stepped over the heavy chain. Behind him several bobbies approached with drug-sniffing drugs.

The Inspector produced a paper and in a loud voice  said “This is a search warrant under the Dangerous  Drugs Act”. He was halfway across the drawbridge when the Angels flung him over the rail into the concrete basement below. Whistles shrilled and a wave of police rushed forwards. Immediately they were pelted with a stockpile of missiles. Squatters now gone stark raving mad were continuing the battle.

The Battle of Hippy Castle had begun.

 

The novel was published as  ‘the true inside story of 144’ even though it is clear from the very first page that it is entirely based on the most sensationalist accounts of the tabloid press.   Even as a piece of pulp fiction, it is a bit of a disgrace to the genre. It is just so badly written. But then Sam Fuller was writing a movie script, not a work of literature.

The question this text raises though is just what kind of spectacle was  144 ? The occupation was certainly not consciously  conceived as a piece of street theatre, performed for the media,  unlike the ‘Days of Rage’ anti Vietnam war protest  staged at the democratic Convention in Chicago which from the outset was planned with one eye on media coverage. Yet the building certainly did become  a  platform on which a whole variety of actors performed : The Hells Angels who provided the security force, the skinheads from East London outside the building who spent their time trading missiles with the Angels, the Beef  Steak Society who, contrary to Sam Fuller’s account, set up their trenchers in the courtyard and proceeded to enjoy a three course meal of traditional English fare to make the point that people who worked for as living and paid their taxes could enjoy the good things in life!  The balconies in particular served an important function, at once look out points and offering a platform from which to see and be seen by the crowds of spectators below.

The next exhibit is  my own personal archive of 144 and the other  street commune squats. It contains cuttings from both the tabloid and broadsheet press, leaflets and other ephemera produced by the LSC, a copy of the only issue of our newspaper Rubber Duck  and some photographs. The material is contained in a large  dossier about three foot square, with  stiff cardboard covers, on which I have written a dedication to my adoptive son Stephen, who unfortunately died in 2013;  the dossier has been re-dedicated to my surviving son, Ned.  So it is  very much  history-as-legacy. The material is displayed on  sheets of brown  paper, many of the cuttings have  age spotting and the  whole dossier is in a fragile condition It is a prime candidate for digitisation which is one reason I have loaned it to MayDay Rooms. The fact that they will laminate the pages  before returning the dossier to me  means that  it will indeed  be preserved for posterity and be something III can hand on to my son  in reasonable condition.

The dossier of press coverage would certainly provide a useful object of analysis for anyone interested in studying moral panics and media representations. But the question it raises for me is  rather different. Is there, can there be, an alternative politics of the media spectacle which disrupts its operation and is ‘recuperation proofed’?

We certainly did not have any developed strategy of  ‘detournement’ at 144. We used the building itself like a street newspaper, painting our slogans on the building or hanging banners from the balcony in full view of the crowds. ‘ We are the Writing on Your Walls’  which became  our iconic statement  was the result of  my reading of Emile Beneveniste’s  essay on JL Austin’s theory of performative statements and thinking about the role of graffiti as territorial markers. Looking back it seems to me to sum up the bind we were in: our power of performativity was purely symbolic, there was no real sense in which we were a political threat or about to bebebe the walls of Jericho, or London Babylon, tumbling down  by blowing our own  revolutionary trumpets. The tabloids might have conjectured that we were some kind of urban guerrilla force. The fact that there was an electricity substation in the basement of 144 and that with a flick of a switch we could have blanketed most of Mayfair in darkness, lent some credence to this view,  and the police spent a lot of time searching the building for guns and ammunition and were very disappointed when they only found a large number of plastic boules, although as we discovered when the skinheads outside the building  started to return the Hells Angel’s  fire with them, they could be pretty offensive weapons. But despite the beard and  wild hair I was no Che Guevara.

If I became the public face of 144 it was mainly because my job was indeed to deal with the media. One of the most hotly debate topics in our mass meetings was whether the tabloid press should be let into the building. We decided that if we barred them on the grounds of their sensationalist and biased reporting we would only antagonise them further and in any case these reporters were quite capable of sitting it out and just making it all up. So we organised daily press conferences in the large downstairs reception room and took the press on guided tours of the building. I don’t think it made much difference  to the way they reported the squat.

Looking through the   press cuttings again  I was struck  by certain recurrent motifs in the way the  squat was represented. There was the trope of 144  as a haunted house – the spectre of private property being turned into public property thanks to a legal loophole created by an ancient Law, and, as such threatening the very foundations of society. Predictably this was the favoured story line of the  Tory press.

Then there  was 144 as  Home Alone, a kind of anti- family romance, a cautionary tale of what happens when parents leave children to their own devices, especially  when the parent in question is the Queen  Mother.  This was the subtext of much of the liberal press, most notably  the Guardian, the Observer  and New Society.

Finally there was a positive rendition of this theme in the view of 144 as an alternative   orphanage, a place where children and young people  flocked  to find a home away from home, to break away from  repressive family values and experiment with new and more liberating life styles. This, of course, was the line taken by the underground press.

In quite a few instances the same incident was contextualised  and interpreted in radically different ways according to these ‘meta narratives’. Each story line ascribed different motives or intentions to the  various protagonists (the street commune, the police, the crowds etc), focussed their accounts on highly selective aspects of the squat, and located our actions and their outcome in  widely different political scenarios. And for obvious reasons it was the  tabloid version of events, broadcast  in a slightly watered down version by mainstream TV coverage   which prevailed.

My next exhibit is a rubber stamp, with ‘London Street Commune’ engraved on it. We used it at 144  to stamp peoples hands as they came and went from the  building, rather like what happens in a  rave or night club. After the fifth day of the squat only those who could show the mark  at the door  were allowed in. It was the only way we had of controlling the numbers as these swelled  beyond what the building could accommodate as result of all the publicity. This little device was the nearest we came to exercising any kind of bureaucratic authority over the squat. Major policy decisions – should we fortify the building, should the press be admitted, what action should we take if the police stormed the building, should we impose a curfew between midnight and 6 am so people could get some sleep or was this an unwarranted authoritarian assault on everyone’s right to party – all these decisions were taken by a show of hands  after discussion in our  mass house meetings every evening. These meetings often went on for several hours and there was a very high level of active participation. They  were nearest thing I have ever personally witnessed   to direct democracy in action.  They were also an intensive form of political education for young people many of whom had never  before had any say  in  decisions affecting their lives.

 My penultimate exhibit is a rubber duck. Or rather Rubber Duck, the first and final edition of  a  newspaper produced by Street Aid, the successor organisation  to the London Street Commune, and  written largely by ex street communards. It was aimed at the large floating homeless population  of young people in the West End; as well as feature articles including one about 144, it included information about hostels, legal rights, a map of squats and ‘derries’,  all night cafes and clubs.It was’nt exactly Big Issue, although we did make some spare cash selling it  around the West End – I remember David Hockney buying a copy off me in Leicester Square. Street  Aid was based initially in Soho and offered free legal advice and was linked to the Muggins Trust which was set up in memory of one of the communards who committed suicide after a bad acid trip.I have described  in my memoir. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the paper was the cartoons which we done by a very talented graphic artist  associated with King Mob Echo, the magazine of the English Situationists, who were mainly based in Notting Hill.  So here the link between the two ‘scenes’  is palpable.

My final    exhibit is a photograph and brings together the personal and political  aspects of the squat. It is a head and shoulders portrait which shows me wearing my ‘original’ T shirt  caked in oil paint  which had become my public fashion statement. I had  vowed not to take it off until our demands were met. It was very uncomfortable to wear, more like a hair shirt than a T shirtshirtshirt,  and also very smelly. The photograph was taken by a Daily Mail reporter and on the back of it is the following inscription:

Dear Mrs  Cohen

‘This is the photograph of the man known as Doctor John, who is a leader of the 144 Piccadilly  squat and whom we believe to be your son. Can you please positively identify that this is the case. If you would like to contact me I am   enclose my phone number’ signed     Daily Mail Reporter.

The photograph had been pushed through the letter box at my parents flat, where the reporter had somehow traced me.   I do not know how  the Mail had  got wind of my ‘real’ identity  but along with reporters from the Sun and the Mirror  they camped out in the lobby of the block of flats  near Euston  where my parents lived, perhaps in the hope of getting an ‘exclusive’ from me  although I had not been home for over a year. Eventually the press harassment  got so bad that my parents had to leave town and go to stay with friends in the country.

It must have been quite a shock for my mother to be suddenly confronted with this photograph of her prodigal son. How could she possibly recognise her version of me  in the bearded wild man I had apparently become and who represented everything, that as an avid  Daily Mail reader herself, she most feared and loathed?  According to my father,  the public shame she felt my notoriety in the Tory press   had brought on the family name was  so great that she resigned as a local Tory Councillor, apparently in the belief  that  she would be blamed for bringing up  a son  who had turned out to be Public Enemy Number One  and hence would become an electoral liability to the party. In fact I am sure she would have received  a large sympathy vote,  but my father  has never forgiven me for having wrecked her bona fide  political career in wilful pursuit of my own delinquent  one.  My mother, however had a different story, namely that she resigned because my father felt that her going out to political meetings  in the evening meant that he had to cook his own dinner, and was lonely without her. So here is an example of how an undisputed event – my mother’s resignation from the  Tory party – is attributed to two quite different causes, both of which are equally plausible, even as  they   point the story  in  different directions; in one case it is a story about  the petty bourgeois values of the Tory party; in the other patriarchy rules OK.

If my parents suffered at the hands of the tabloid press, I  also felt at the mercy of the media. I had a recurrent dream throughout the ten days of the occupation of being pursued by a monster with two searchlights for eyes and trailing a ganglia of cables.  The whole experience of the squat  began to havehavehave an unreal  quality form me as  the events took  on a nightmarish intensity; as public hysteria about ‘hippy squatters’ mounted, I became increasingly anxious about the backlash our actions were likely to provoke as well as fearing for  my own safety.  One symptom  of the stress I was under was the fact that  my hair started to turn  white at the ripe old age of 26!   What saved my sanity  was that I found it possible to sneak away from the squat from time to time and visit the Reading Room in the British Museum. Here, far from the madding crowds,  I read Althusser on contradiction, Beneveniste and Jakobson on language, Barthes and Levi Strauss on mythology, their calm lucid prose and style of thinking such a refreshing change from the heated  debates and collective  paranoia in which I was  otherwise immersed.  Nevertheless the memory of  those days has continued to reverberate  over the years. The events and the   scenes  witnessed at 144   left an indelible impression on many of us  and as, Birnmingham Dave says,  continue to shape the way we think about politics, culture and society.

Appendix:Notes Towards an adoption archive 

 Traces survive in registers, and nobody knows where these registers are hidden, and who has custody of them, and whether or not their custodians are willing to let you see therm. Or perhaps they have forgotten that such registers exist.   Patrick Modiano Search Warrant

The history of adoption is as scattered and hidden as the stories (and sometimes the lives) of those who  have grown up under its sign. The documentation of policies and practices is dispersed across a range of diverse agencies and institutions,  where the information is often made  inaccessible by the way in which it is stored. This occurs at more than one level. As long as the fact of adoption was an official secret,it was effaced from the life histories which were still marked by it.The sealed record ensured that the prehistory of many adoptions  also remained a closed book. Today, with the advent of a new regime of ‘open adoption’, the climate has shifted and  for the first time it becomes possible to produce  a proper history of adoption, a history which articulates what has hitherto been  kept seperate or silent. But what form should such a historiography take ?

Adoption is usually written up within the framework of a history of child welfare, or family law.Once located there it tends to form part of grand narrative of Progress, in which a pretty straight line is traced from the bad old days, associated with the foundling hospital, orphanage,and the stigma of illegitimacy to the good new days where  a state of enlightenment prevails,in terms of   current policy, provision and public attitude. The altruism of  Child Rescue is often made  the main  motivating force in this onward march, in a way which allows little room for  discontinuity or reversal, still less for the trickier elements associated with a return of the repressed. History is simply not supposed to proceed by  its ‘bad side’. This model is all the more seductive in that it mirrors a positivism   in which the authorised  version of the adoption story was inscribed until quite recently ; the child was supposed to move forward from a bad situation to a good one, and its progress was measured by the extent to which the past was left behind.

In suggesting setting up an Adoption archive I am  therefor suggesting more than a compilation  of primary source material which is otherwise hard to find. We are proposing a model of adoption history which is both closer to the actual diversity of experience  and practice, and which  discloses the hidden narratives which operate  between the lines of official records and authorised texts. This also means locating the institution of adoption in a rather different way; not simply as something produced by the intervention  of special agencies, but as a site where discourses of power, related to  gender, class, and ‘race’ engage with specific points of tension within prevailing  ideologies of family,  nation  and child development. It is here too that various  ‘scientific’ theories of human behaviour  have both penetrated, and been resisted  by popular or common sense notions of inheritance and identity. How that happens in the context of negotiations between social workers and adoptive families is part of the story we need to tell. Finally we are dealing with a certain history of representations. What the figure of the abandoned  child has been  made to mean as a statement  about the moral or social order is directly connected to the strategies which have been used  to present actual children as objects of charitable concern, or  emotional investment.

Adoption is an important and largely  neglected area of research in the field of social history. Many local oral history projects, for example, have picked up passing references to children who have been adopted without according it any special  significance. Although we are concerned to highlight and expand this source of documentation, our object is not just to establish another specialism. Rather it is construct a methodology which recognises the unique contribution which adoptees themselves have made to constructing an agenda for research into the past.In this context  the  investigation of life histories has been largely carried out by people seeking to uncover the circumstances which lead to their own adoption,and thereby retrieve a sense of lost origins. This do-it-yourself historiography, which was often pursued in the face of official discouragement or indifference necessarily took the form of a genealogical project : the unfolding of a hidden principle of difference which was constitutive of the subjects identity. This research  is also often described  in archaeological terms – digging away to uncover traces of lost childhoods which have been buried under layers of adult misrepresentation. Quite  spontaneously these models are close to the methodology  proposed by Michel Foucault for the historical study of knowledge/power relations. They offer an alternative to official teleologies of progress, and one which we propose to develop and apply to the study of the  institution of adoption.

Such an approach has implications for the way historical material is collected, organised and analysed. We have called this project an archive for the obvious reason that  it is a place where people  can go to consult historical records which are catalogued for easy reference. But there is more to this than providing  an index of items. Even professional  researchers do not always already know what they are looking for before they begin. Indeed they may only discover the extent of their ignorance after they have started work ! It is however necessary to have some preliminary framework to guide the investigation, albeit one which is sufficiently open ended to incorporate changes in form and content.  This  always involves an implicit theory or map of the terrain. Our aim  here  is to construct and evaluate  a particular  way of mapping  and making sense of adoption history, and to make this available to users of the archive in the form of a meta-catalogue or ‘catalogue raisonee’ of the material which it contains. Far from  precluding alternative readings, this approach actively encourages users to identify lacunae, make their own connections  add fresh evidence, and pose new questions.

The articulation  between regimes and narratives could  be examined in terms of a set of organising themes, which will focus on the dimensions of class, gender and ethnicity with which we are concerned. These themes would be determined in the course of research but might include some of the following :

a) Naturalisation : notions of bonding,natural parenthood   and natural rights;  Adoption and the  naturalisation of   identity ; naturalisation of ‘aliens’ by the state.

b) Assimilation : the analogies and  substantive links  between adoption into another family and assimilation  into another culture ;the infantilisation of the immigrant and the acculturation of the child ;   dual consciousness and building a home from home ;  practices of ‘passing’.

c) Body Politics : ancestry as an invented tradition; physical characteristics and the ideology  of inheritance  ; imagined kinship and community ;the boundaries of  belonging.

d) In the Name of the Law : the legalisation of identity and  illicit existences ; passports and  papers as  sources of legitimation and anxiety ; the  name of the father in  the adoption story and the mother tongue  in myths of ethnic origin.

e) Mirror Stages :the practice of ‘matching’ in  adoption and the screening of immigrants ; positive   images  and  religions of identity ; mimicry,  stereotypes  and the subversion of imposed roles in    adoptive  families and post colonial societies.

f) The Hidden Curriculum Vitae : the role of cover stories  in denying difference; censorshop and disclosure ; the  body image as a container of what is hidden from  case histories ; underground   memories ; the past as   foreign country.

g) Teleological tales : rags to riches and other success stories ; atrocity stories and victimologies ; tales of redemption,child rescue and the civilising mission.

h) The Quest for Origins : separation,displacement and loss ; the anxiety of influence and the search for  an authentic self ; roots radicalism and the desire to know.

References

James Agee and Walker Evans  Let us now praise famous men

Mikhail  Bakhtin   The dialogic imagination

Mikel  Bal  Travelling Concepts

Roland Barthes   Mythologies

Luc Basso   Marx and Singularity

Basil Bernstein  Class,. Codes and control Vol 1

Luc Boltanski   and Eve Chiapello The New Spirit of Capitalism

Luc Boltanski  and Luc Thevenot On Justification

Christine Boyer The City as Collective Memory

Regis Debray  The Mediocracy

Leo Braudy      The  Frenzy of Renown

Zygmunt Bauman    Morality,Immortality and other life strategies

Judith Butler     Precarious Life:  the power of mourning and violence

Sue Campbell  Our Faithfulness to the past

Phil Cohen     Reading Room Only

Phil Cohen     Rethinking the Youth Question

Phil Cohen  A Place to think ?  the neo-liberal university and public intellectuals in the age                                      of the  knowledge economy

Jacques Derrida   Archive Fever

Guy Debord  Society of the Spectacle

Michel  Foucault  The Archaeology of Knowledge

Bridget Fowler The Obituary as Collective Memory

Thomas Frank Conquest of the Cool

Hywel Francis  History on Our Side : Wales and the Miners Strike

Samuel Fuller   144 Piccadilly

David Graeber  Possibilities  ( The twilight of vanguardism)

Nordahl Grieg   Defeat

Bruno Gulli  Labour of Fire

Michael Hardt and  Toni Negri  Commonwealth

Tamara Hareven  Transitions :the family and life course in historical perspective

Alan Jafferson and John Goldman   Modernist Star Maps

Kjeld Jakobsen  The archives of the planet

Bruno Latour     Making Things Public

Bruno Llatour   We have never been modern

David Lowenthal  The Past is a Foreign country

Karl Mannheim  The Sociology  of Generations

Herbert Marcuse  Eros and Civilisation

Karl Marx  The German Ideology

Karl Marx   The Philosophy of History

P David Marshall The Celebrity Culture Reader

Alexander Mitscherlich   Society without the Father

Patrick Modiano  Search Warrant

Edgar Morin  The Stars

David Park The long history of new media: technology,historiography and ‘newness’

Dick Pountain and Dave Robins  Cool Rules

Victor Pomidetov (ed) Collective memory and cultural politics

Marilyn Strathern  Commons and Borderlands

Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peeters  L’Archiviste

Yanis Varoufakis   How I became an erratic Marxist

Raoul Vaneigem  The revolution in everyday life

Max Weber  On the routinisation of charisma

Hayden White Meta history : the historical imagination in 19th century Europe

C Wright Mills  The sociological imagination

 

The Idea of the University and the Intellectual in the Age of the Knowledge Economy

The Idea of the University in the Age of the Knowledge Economy / The Idea of the Intellectual in the Age of the Knowledge Economy.

The advent of  a globalised knowledge economy has transformed the  conditions of  intellectual  work over the past twenty five years. These two texts examine different aspects of the situation. The first looks at the impact on the university and its research cultures, especially the humanities departments; it  is argued that   the advent of the modularised curriculum and a ‘post modern’ pedagogy  weakened  the traditional divisions of academic labour, and  helped  encourage new  forms of inter-disciplinarity required and promoted by the knowledge economy. The ‘community of scholars’ has, in turn, been increasingly transformed into an adjunct of the enterprise culture, as academics queue up to offer their services to the corporate sector. The second text  surveys  debates on the  role of the intellectual. It begins by reviewing the classical theories of Julien Benda and Antonio Gramsci, before considering the   more  recent contributions of  Martin Walser and Edward Said.  The  emergence of the post modern  intellectual  is  discussed,  as is the impact of feminism  on notions of intellectuality. The text concludes by suggesting some of the strategies which may still be possible to sustain the role of the public intellectual, as at once an independent  critical voice, and a socially engaged citizen.

Text 1 originally published in New Formations Special Issue on Intellectual Work  2005 and can be viewed here:
The Idea of the University in the Age of the Knowledge Economy

Text 2  originally published in Power and the Intellectual  Conference Proceedings University of Cairo 2005 and can be viewed here:
The idea of the Intellectual in the Age of the Knowledge Economy

Apprenticeship a la Mode

The work of Jean Lave has  made use of the term ‘apprenticeship’ to characterises how people learn  from each other  within face to face communities of practice. At the same time the government  has introduced a system of ‘modern apprenticeship’ to provide training in  many white collar and service occupations, as well as in the traditional skilled manual trades. This text introduces  a  theoretical model for understanding  apprenticeship as a general cultural paradigm shaping gender and generational  relations within traditional  working class communities, and examines its transformation in the  transition to a post industrial, post Fordist occupational structure.

Originally published in Apprenticeship- towards a new paradigm of learning ( ed P Ainley) Kogan Page 2002

You can view the document here:  Apprenticeship a la Mode

Re-Doing the Knowledge – Labour, Learning and Life Stories in Transit

A few years ago I was involved in the attempt to set up an international research project looking at the impact of globalisation  on working class culture, and in particular on the informal processes of learning  that were  transmitted through families, peer groups, workplaces and other communities of practice. The project never happened due to lack of funding but in this text, which is a kind of prolegomena to the project, I discuss   some of the theoretical and methodological problems entailed in doing this kind of  comparative research into locally situated knowledge.

The text originally appeared in the Journal for Education, Work and Society in 2005.  View the document here: Re-doing the Knowledge