Legacy politics and the ruses of remembrance
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. 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.
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 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