Friday, 22 November 2013

Culture and Ideas

It's about time this blog said a little about the net resources I use or admire in regard not merely to politics, but cultural/intellectual matters generally.  Some of what I am going to highlight here is dependent, or partly-dependent on subscription.

The New Left Review has been around as a journal since 1960, or thereabouts.  It remains, surely, the flagship intellectual journal of the Anglophone Marxist left.  It's been an essential forum for disputes and debates in Marxist philosophy, cultural and political theory, radical economics, both in the context of Britain, and globally.  In the Sixties and Seventies, it was a vital conduit for the translation and mediation into the English-speaking world of the work of newly-discovered or re-discovered 'Western Marxism' - the ideas of Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Sebastiano Timpanaro, Louis Althusser.  Important discussions take place in the pages of the Review - the quarrel between Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband (father to Ed and David, recently alleged to have 'hated' Britain) was fought out in its pagesö or more recently debates between Stefan Collini and Francis Mulhern about cultural criticism and intellectuals, or Franco Moretti and Christopher Prendergast about "world literature".  The famous and brilliant 'Nairn-Anderson Theses' on the nature of the British 'revolution', its compromises with the aristocracy and its legacies in the present, were first published in the NLR's pages.  And indeed though the journal was an crucial channel introducing radical continental thought to Britain and America, it also was the arena where a striking array of British, American, and indeed Irish talent was revealed: Terry Eagleton, Fredric Jameson, Perry and Benedict Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Francis Mulhern, and many others.

I've had a subscription since 1990, and I can still remember the pleasure and excitement of coming to grips with it then. I was a MA student in UCD, and, under the guidance of Seamus Deane, Declan Kiberd and Thomas Docherty, in particular, and also Brian Cosgrove and Michael Paul Gallagher, I was finding my intellectual feet - an enormously exciting experience.  Suddenly, I found modes of thinking that allowed me to take culture seriously and as part of the social and political world: Marxisms, but also postcolonial thought - Edward Said pre-eminently - and some of the French thinkers so fashionable in the academy then and since: Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Francois Lyotard.  At the same time, I was discovering radical journalism - Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens, both of them at that time closely connected with the NLR - and getting agitated about the Gulf War.  Not only was I working with wonderful teachers and critics, but also, through those mentors, coming to an understanding of what Said famously called the 'worldiness' of ideas and writing - the sense that there is always a relationship between aesthetic ideas and experiences, and the apparently grubby world of politics and capital.  Becoming a devotee of the NLR was part of that very heady mix, and it has never ceased to be interesting and valuable.  Access to the full range of the NLR's articles and archives is by subscription:

New Left Review - NLR 83, September-October 2013

A few years later, I was studying in England, and began to read the London Review of Books.  The LRB is that thing which it's still hard to find in Ireland - a stylish, smart journal about books and ideas and politics, which is not 'academic', but which is a far cry from the standards of the Irish weekend 'arts' or 'literary' supplements, which are so often provincial and narcissistic (the capacity of the Irish Times to focus on the output of its own staff on its book pages is truly embarrassing) and overwhelmingly middlebrow.  The LRB reviews literature, but the essays are not slavishly attached to their topics (sometimes a frustrating trait, but not usually), and will use a book as the occasion for much wider speculation or discussion.  Much more than the New York Review of Books, of which it was originally an offshoot, the journal is flexible and frequent enough (fortnightly) to respond to current events - giving Edward Said the space to review books on the Lebanon War and the camp massacres at length in 1984, or publishing a wide array of responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 - and it generally feels rather more critically distant from a cultural or policy establishment than its Manhattan rival. The LRB, while broadly left-liberal in outlook, is not afraid either, to give space to writers from across the entire political spectrum, from Judith Butler to Edward Luttwak. It's attractively streetwise in tone, but rarely trivial. It's willing to publish slash-and-burn reviews - one remembers a witty but unfair review of Gayatri Spivak's Critique of Postcolonial Reason by Terry Eagleton - or controversial one-off essays or documents: it was in the pages of the LRB, after all, that John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt first published the essay that would eventually lead to their book The Israel Lobby, after it'd been rejected by the Atlantic Monthly (which had commissioned the piece originally and then baulked at what it got).   My one qualm about the LRB is its inexplicable tendency to give enormous space in its coverage of Irish writing and culture to Colm Toibin, a moderately talented novelist and long-time journalist of no great investigative zeal or critical brio, who nevertheless seems to have attained to a powerful position in 'Irish Letters', buttressed by glamorous appointments at the NY Public Library and Columbia University.  Even with Toibin's lugubrious presence, however, the LRB remains a great newspaper.  It publishes a certain amount of material for free on its website.

London Review of Books · 21 November 2013

Readers of this blog will be aware of my admiration of Alexander Cockburn, whose last book, A Colossal Wreck, I managed to purchase last week.  A Colossal Wreck is a tremendous compendium of humour, insight and polemic, written, as often in the past, in diary form.  Hilarious and insightful reflections on cookery, vintage American cars, small-town life and politics, on Ireland at several points, combine with guerilla attacks on bloated imitators (Hitchens) and the Washington establishment,  and accounts of friends fondly remembered or praised (Edward Said, Ben Sonnenberg).  In contrast to Hitchens, who so obviously thirsted for insiderdom and friends in high places, Cockburn in the last 15 years of his life burned his connections with the centres of power, and removed himself to remote northern California.  Yet, in the age of the internet, this did not restrain his questing coverage of events and politics all over the world, and he also criss-crossed the United States, carrying writing accoutrements, cooking seafood in motel bedrooms, and endlessly meeting and learning about ordinary people.  From his California base, Petrolia, Cockburn also edited Counterpunch, with his comrades Ken Silverstein (who set up the paper and site in 1994) and Jeffrey StClair.  Cockburn died last year, but CP is still edited by StClair, and remains a wonderful source of edgy journalism, both polemical and analytical, 'muckraking with radical attitude'.  CP maintains a brilliant free website, and also publishes a hardcopy subscription newsheet, often with stories not otherwise available or more comprehensively elaborated.

CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

I said above that the Irish literary-intellectual scene lacks a journal comparable to the London Review of Books.  In fact, this is no longer entirely true, due to the pioneering and splendid efforts of Maurice Earls and Enda O'Doherty at the Dublin Review of Books, an online publication.  That Maurice Earls might be involved in such an effort will not suprise those who are familiar with Books Upstairs, probably Dublin's finest and one of its most pleasant independent bookstores, located on College Green opposite the Front Arch of TCD.  Maurice is the proprietor (as well as the owner of several other bookstores around the city), but he's also a historian, and a real bibliophile.  For many years, Books Upstairs has been the best place in Dublin to find the 'little magazines' that are the backbone of literary activity in many countries - modest reviews, poetry magazines, leftwing or feminist or gay magazines (I'd reckon that Books Upstairs was the first bookshop in Dublin with a gay literature section).  The staff are uniformly pleasant and helpful - Ruth Kenny who used to manage the store is a star of knowledge, enthusiasm, and helpfulness.  Maurice, with Enda O'Doherty, set up the Dublin Review of Books in 2007, initially as a quarterly publication.  Now it's fortnightly, and it's a testament to the editors' focus and care that the standard has not dropped at all.  Here at last we find the extended review, where a book can be contextualised formally, historically, ideologically.  Here at last we can look, through the eyes of primarily Irish reviewers, but also international contributors (it's few Irish journals that can boast of having published an interview with Ryszard Kapuscinski) at a wide range of international writing, ideas and events.  The DRB now publishes essays as well as reviews, and also occasionally excerpts from new books or younger writers.  All of its content is free.

Dublin Review of Books

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