Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Reading and Walking in Paris - The incomparable Eric Hazan

Statue of Napoleon I after the Fall of the Vendôme Column

Over the last several days, I've been spending much more time in the Latin Quarter of Paris than I normally do.   The Latin Quarter is still - much, though not all of it - beautiful, but its beauty has at times the character of a great museum.  This is hardly an original statement, and it's not a unique condition.  Very many cities, not only mighty world cities like Paris or New York, but smaller European cities such as Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Dublin are getting 1) museumified; 2) ever-more privatised; 3) corporatised.   All of these cities seem to have crises of liveability.   A great many of the friends I made in New York in the 1990s (and this process was well underway back then) can no longer afford to live in the city, unless they are lucky enough to have an apartment in a rent-controlled building or to have inherited or otherwise acquired property.  But the same is the case in Dublin, a city about a tenth of the size of New York or at least of the NYC-Philadelphia conurbation, the largest in America.   No young person, no young professional unless getting the most extreme income from one of the American internet multinationals which now dominate parts of Dublin (Facebook, Apple, Google, AirB&B) can afford to buy or to rent acceptable accommodation in the city.  Arts venues are getting crowded out by extreme rents - the Bernard Shaw pub on South Richmond Street is only the latest victim of a process where it's more interesting for a developer or landlord to construct yet another hotel in the city, rather than keep a vibrant music venue.  Any idea of the commons or the public good - never much protected in Ireland in the last several decades - is increasingly eroded or hollowed out in this process.   The city as the space, home, domain of its citizens to live, love, create, deliberate and make the new collectively (as against merely to work) is gradually ceasing to exist.

The reason I have been much around the Latin Quarter in recent days is because, first alone but with a peerless textual companion and comrade, and then, second, yesterday with a walking tour, I've been exploring revolutionary Paris i.e. the locales of the great Revolution of 1789.  As Eric Hazan says, it's harder and harder to find the traces of the world of Robespierre, Danton and Marat, of the sans-culottes and of the battles, debates, movements that shook France and then the world in those wild, aggressive, heady and sublime years.   The Cour du Commerce where revolutionaries met and debated is now blanketed in swathes of restaurants and other eateries.  Danton has his statue (and cinemas and cafés that bear his name), but it's all surrounded by the noise of traffic and the insistence of advertising simulacra.  The Cordeliers meeting hall is now part of a university precint.  Most piquant, or even embarrassing, for me: the house where the young Bonaparte lived, on Rue Saint-Severin, before he commanded part of the defence of the Convention, is now an 'Irish pub', that most ubiquitous, ugly and vulgar manifestation of the globalization of 'Irishness'.  It's like finding that James Connolly's birthplace in Edinburgh is now a nightclub, or anticipating what the Irish government will eventually permit on the site of Moore Street, where the final desperate firefights of the Easter Rising took place.

Paris has no better chronicler, I'd be confident to wager, of this constant and usually losing battle between a living and humane history and way of urban living, and that deadly combination of 'heritage' and privatisation described above, than Eric Hazan, an extraordinary combination of writer, publisher, activist, intellectual, historian, political thinker and sheer inspiration.   Hazan, who lived and worked the first several decades of his adult life as a cardiac surgeon, first came into my line of vision when Verso translated and published his wonderful L'Invention de ParisThe Invention of Paris came out in 2011.  I began reading it shortly thereafter, probably in 2012 or 2013, most particularly when in Paris, and I have been a devotee of it ever since.   Paris must be one of the most written-about cities in the world, and I make no claim to having read the smallest fraction of that vast literature.  But I cannot believe that much of it can offer the same mix of relentless erudition, salty trenchancy, poetic vision, Marxist subtlety and utopian intransigence which this book does.  It is a vast repository not only of descriptions of the city, radiating outward from the ancient core, springing outwards with each of the new city walls or defensive systems, right up to the Périphérique; but also of knowledge and quotation (literary, political, historical, cartographic, phenomenological, psychological) of the city.  It is an exceptional joy to read.  Opening the book again after a few months (I now have three copies), I find myself smiling for sheer pleasure: not just because I sympathise with Hazan's politics, but for the way he mixes a deep historical knowledge of his city with the most formidable sense of the battlefield that Paris has long been and is now.   Here is a small selection, both from the man himself, and from a handful of the writers to whom he likes to refer.

Camille Desmoulins, at the Palais-Royal, July 13, 1789, in the Café de Foy:

It was half past two, and I had gauged the mood of the people.  My anger against the despots had turned to despair.  I could not see any groups ready for an uprising, however strongly affected they were.  Three young men, standing hand in hand, struck me as inspired by a more resolute courage.  I could see that they had come to the Palais-Royal with the same intention as myself.  A number of passive citizens followed them.  'Messieurs', I said, 'here is the beginning of a civic force: one of us must take the initiative and stand on a table to harangue the people'.  'Get up, then'.  I agreed.  Rather than climbing, I was immediately hoisted up on the table.  Right away I found myself surrounded by an immense crowd.  Here is my speech, which I shall never forget: 'Citizens, there is not a moment to lose.  I have come from Versailles.  Necker has been dismissed.  His dismissal is the signal for a St Bartholomew's Night of patriots.  This evening, the Swiss and German battalions will come out of the Champ-du-Mars to massacre us.  Just one single recourse remains, to seize arms and choose a rosette by which to recognise one another'.

Gérard de Nerval, remembering the 1830s in his Petits Châteaux de Bôheme:

It was in our common lodgings in Rue du Doyenné that we came to recognise one another as brothers ...  in a corner of the old Louvre de Médicis, very close to the spot where the former Hotel de Rambouillet stood ... Good old Rogier would smile into his beard, from the top of a ladder, where he was painting on one of the three mirror frames a Neptune - who looked like himself!  Then the two swing doors opened abruptly: it was Théophile [Gautier].  We hurried to offer him a Louis XIII armchair, and he read in his turn his first verses, while Cydalise I, or Lorry, or Victorine, swung nonchalantly in blonde Sarah's hammock, stretched across the enormous salon ... What happy days!  We gave balls, suppers, costumed parties ... We were young, always gay, and often rich ... But now I come to the sad note: our palace was demolished.   I rummaged through its debris last autumn.  Even the ruins of the chapel [of the Doyenné, which was part of Saint-Thomas-du-Louvre], which so gracefully stood out against the green of the trees ... were not respected.  Around that time, I found myself, rich enough to buy back from the demolishers two lots of woodwork from the salon, painted by our friends.  I have the two Nanteuil architraves; Vattier's signed Watteau, Corot's two long panels representing Provençal landscapes; Châttilon's Red Monk, reading the Bible on the curved haunches of a naked sleeping woman; Chassériau's Bacchantes, who have tigers on a leash like dogs ... As for the Renaissance bed, the Médicis dresser, the two sideboards, the Ribera, the tapestries of the Four Elements, all that was scattered a long time ago.  'Where did you lose so many fine things?' Balzac asked me one day. - 'In misfortune', I replied, citing one of his favourite phrases.

Hazan himself, on the fate of the Place Vendôme:

The Place Vendôme, for its part, has been endowed by the architects in charge of public buildings and national palaces with an indescribable paving scattered with sheets of brushed steel, and bunker entrances to its underground carpark.  The chauffeurs dusting their limousines outside Cartier, the Ritz, or Credit Foncier wear dark suits and dark glasses, and have the appearance of bodyguards.  Whenever I pass that way, I think fondly of the National Guards, canteen-women, Gavroches, armed civilians and gunners at their posts, posing in groups for the photographer in front of the debris of the column in May 1871.

Heinrich Heine, on the Paris Bourse, in his French Affairs: Letters from Paris (1832):

I vex myself every time I enter the Bourse, the beautiful edifice of marble, built in the noblest Greek style, and consecrated to the most contemptible business - to swindling in the public funds ... Here, in the vast space of the high-arched hall, here it is that the swindlers, with all their repulsive faces and disagreeable screams, sweep here and there, like the tossing of a sea of egoistic greed, and where, amid the wild billows of human beings, the great bankers dart up, snapping and devouring like sharks, one monster preying on another ...


Saturday, 7 September 2019

Better Fewer, But Better - Walking and Reading in Paris

I have not written anything on this blog since May, a particularly long gap.  I've had a long quiet summer of working, reading and writing, mostly good.  I am fortunate.  I've also been mulling over - very slowly, I admit - using Twitter to get this blog the audience even I reckon it deserves.  But I have not yet ventured into that Babel of miscommunication.  I need to hurry up and give it a go.

Meanwhile, this weekend, I am lucky enough to be in Paris.   It still feels warm and rather summery here (at least to an Irish flaneur like me), and I have been walking the city as I love to do.  I usually come here in midwinter, when the great flows of visitors abate somewhat, and the weather is rarely so dismal as to make exploring uncomfortable.    I stay in Montmartre, on the south side of the butte, and though my dear friends R and R are not here at the moment, I can make my way nicely.   Nearly always in my satchel I have one of Eric Hazan's marvellous books on the city.  

Yesterday  I decided to trace part of the route from south to north across the city meridian which Hazan delineates in his most recent book, A Walk Through Paris.  I would walk the relatively short distance from the Luxembourg to Les Halles, or the area where Les Halles once was, before its disgraceful destruction in the early Seventies.  I took the metro down to Cluny-La Sorbonne, and then breasted the waves of people up Boulevard St Michel.  But just as I was facing across Rue de Médicis to the outer walls or fence of the park, I noticed the little row of bookshops on the near side of the street, and I went into one.  I spent the next two hours chatting with the owner, Penelope, who runs a beautiful store, walled with books of all kinds, floor to very high ceiling, with ladders for remote access.   It turns out she is from an area of western Canada which I know well from boarding school days long ago, and we even worked out that we have some friends or at least acquaintances in common.   I bought a few books from Penelope, including a new Semiotext(e) chapbook by Francois Cusset, and Tom Nairn's and Angelo Quattrocchi's famous account and critique of May 1968 in Paris, The Beginning of the End.  I noted to her my admiration (verging, it must be said, on idolatry) of Hazan.   

So long did Penelope and her daughter and I stand talking that my feet were worn out without any walking of any route anywhere, and at around 5pm, I trundled back home on the metro.

And then this morning, as if at once to lift my spirits and frustrate me, Penelope emailed me to say that M. Hazan was in The Red Wheelbarrow (but I was not there to meet him, alas ...), and asking about histories of Ireland!   I fired off a couple of recommendations, kicking myself for having missed a real hero.

Then I ambled down Boulevard de Clichy and then on along the Batignolles to Parc Monceau.  There I sat on a bench, and finished the last 70 pages of Tariq Ali's 2017 book, The Dilemmas of Lenin, a stimulating mix of history, biography, analysis and speculation.  The later chapters, about the women of the Revolution, and about the women in Lenin's life - Nadezhda Krupskaya and Inessa Armand - are moving and impressive, and I was very struck by how formidable a feminist cohort had gathered in Russia in the immediately pre-Revolutionary period, and then the far-sightedness of much Bolshevik policy on women, fertility, marriage and the equality of the sexes.

Around me, Paris survived as only Paris can.   A group of African people sang beautiful songs under the trees.  Two boxers sparred, weaving, jigging, back and forth like dancers, the crack of gloves on focus mitts audible from a good distance.   The dogs of the city - the domesticated ones - pattered or strutted by, meeting each other with taut excitement, ears forward, checking.   Park attendants discussed the new gilet jaunes protests, with me trying to listen in.  There can be few greater pleasures than good reading on a Parisian park bench on a warm September day, looking up every now and then to study the stylish, the beautiful, the ragged, and the conformist, and maybe the radical future in this great city, as they pass by.

Here is the website for The Redwheelbarrow Bookstore:

And here is Seamus Deane's brilliant review of Hazan's A Walk Through Paris, on the excellent Dublin Review of Books website:


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

May Day Manifestos

May Day - International Workers' Day - is the day for working people all over the world.  In these times of Right ascendancy in so many places - America, Russia, Hungary,  Poland, Brazil, India - it is entirely salutary to mark, celebrate, remember and learn on May Day.  Leftist activism has rarely been more widespread, encompassing gender and feminist politics, green politics, migration, and the new rise of extraordinary youth activists, such as Greta Thunberg.

Here is some reading to enjoy on May Day, and every day:

From Verso, a list for further reading:

May Day Sale!

Bhaskar Sunkara is the dynamic and brilliant publisher and editor of Jacobin, new beacon of the resurgent American left:

Why RTE Radio 1 Is More Awful Than Ever

Five years ago, I wrote a blogpost entitled 'Why RTE Radio 1 Is So Awful'.   It has been, by a long way, the most read post on this blog, outdistancing any musings on books or inflammatory writings about Palestine.  Even the bots of the Donbass or West Virginia seem to enjoy it.  Here it is:

Since then, I have not stopped listening to Radio 1.  I switch back and forth between it and Newstalk106.  Both stations annoy me, but it's RTE Radio 1 which benefits from the license fee which I have not as yet paid - not possessing a TV - but which, no doubt, I soon will have to pay, just to guard against the outside possibility that I'd someday be stupid enough to want to watch 'The Late Late Show' on the smartphone I don't have.  Because Radio 1 stands as the 'radio station of record' of Ireland, in the manner of the Irish Times in the print media, I resent its dreary and often asinine character.

My irritable and scornful analysis of Radio 1 still has currency.  It probably says a lot that the station's character has not changed one iota since April 2014.  Some presenters have gone, some new ones have arrived.  None are, of themselves, worth listening to.  Some, by virtue of the extraordinarily fixed pattern of the station's schedule, acquire or have acquired 'importance'.  None of them deserve it.

For my money, the only broadcaster worth making an effort to listen to in Ireland these days is Sean Moncrieff, who presents an afternoon programme on Newstalk, Monday to Friday, between 2pm and 4pm.  Moncrieff, with a background in stand-up comedy and a training in philosophy, manages to present a programme which steers between those poles, often to striking effect.  He can be drily, or vulgarly, funny.  He clearly improvises at least part of his spiel.  He has real range in his interviews, which mostly tend towards the light, but not always.  Moncrieff can cut to the heart of a topic, be it a serious cultural matter or some scrap from popular news, with a combination of steeliness and sympathy, which leaves most of his competitors standing.  He is (of course) supported by an able and creative production team, but this does not take away from his own wit, articulacy and mental agility.  He is vastly more interesting to listen to than Ray Darcy, his rival in the same slot on RTE Radio 1, and he's vastly more interesting than most of his Newstalk colleagues - the callous Paul Williams, the breathlessly conceited Pat Kenny, the crassly philistine Ivan Yates who seems never to have advanced in his capacity for speech beyond the Terrible Twos, or the bizarrely-accented Susan Cahill, who gushes in the same way over various writers every Sunday.

But RTE Radio 1 has no one of Moncrieff's wit, insight or sure touch.   RTE Radio 1 is stale.  As a friend pointed out to me a while ago, the problem with Marian Finucane is that she is getting old, and her programme and its arrangement are getting old.  In fact they were all old when the damn progamme was created.   The whole RTE Radio 1 structure is old, and it needs a kick in the arse.  Alas, when you produce, or collude in the production of, 'star' presenters, such people then expand to fill the fetishized space that has been allotted to them.  It's beyond comprehension that RTE (or anywhere else) would pay a superannuated fogey like Ryan Tubridy nearly half a million euros per annum to do the 'work' he does.  I don't understand or see his 'talent'.  His voice is hard to bear, his wit is flat, and his morning radio programme is almost entirely without interest.

I feel sorry in summertime for Dave Fanning - a major Irish broadcaster, with substantial cultural achievements to his name in the promotion and development of rock music (even if I differ with him about U2) - who often 'stands in for Ryan', while 'Ryan' takes the long holidays written into his disgraceful contract.  Years ago, someone said that the two best Irish radio broadcasters were Fanning, and Tommy O'Brien.  They both had very distinctive voices and fields of interest and expertise.  Fanning still has these things; O'Brien, sadly, died in 1988.  Fanning who has a very distinctive radio voice, radio patter, and angle on the world, is much much better than Tubridy, but presumably has not been able to negotiate the kind of ludicrous contract with RTE that the younger and less talented man has, and so he takes gigs like this one.  

Tommy O'Brien was the kind of real original figure which RTE now almost entirely lacks.  He owned a huge collection of records of classical music, particularly grand opera, and he presented a weekly radio programme on Radio 1, always opened with his greeting 'Good evenin', listeners', in a strong south Tipp accent.  He possessed great knowledge, was passionate about his subject, but was entirely lacking in pretension.   Not everyone might agree with his taste, but his extraordinary individuality was undeniable.  Compared to him, a Tubridy is merely a buffoon, and a Cathal Murray is a soogey-moogey saccharine dummy who would make watching a game of tiddly-winks seem exciting.

Tubridy's 'talent', as I say, is lost on me.  I don't see what he brings to his programmes that a smart young journalist, well trained in radio and with an able production team, could not do for a tenth of the cost.  RTE tells us that if it doesn't pay bloated marionettes like Tubridy or Finucane or Miriam 'Genewwwwoyyynely' O'Callaghan or Joe Duffy commensurately bloated pay packets, it will 'lose' them.  Well and good.   Fine.  So be it - lose the lot of them, and give us radio with some content, and less of the faux charisma which is the real content of so much of the drivel we are asked to listen to.

The same vapidity pertains to programme content, as ever.  Now that we are moving towards the summer season, the 10pm slot on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays on Radio 1 is vulnerable to even more dross than usual. We have had in recent times a gamut of female journalists anchoring 'The Late Debate' - the typically useless RTE magazine with a few talking heads.  We now have repeats on three successive nights of 50 years of 'Sunday Miscellany'.  'Sunday Miscellany' is a vintage programme, but it is hardly the kind of totem of Western civilization which RTE plainly thinks it is.  It does not warrant repeats - five decades of middlebrow ruminations do not bear much repetition.  And, to add insult to injury, we are always told we are being 'given another chance' to listen to these programmes, as if we are unregenerate brats who are resistant to the dreary nostrums of our elders and betters and now are being given one last chance to simper properly and suck it all up.   If this is what RTE thinks of its listeners, then it really is on its last legs.


Capitalism and the state - a memory of reading Poulantzas on Achill, Summer 2006

2006 was a very tricky year.  In the spring, I lost my job as a college lecturer in unusually painful and troubling circumstances.   During the summer, I applied for many jobs and got no interviews.  At the very end of the summer, I was lucky enough to get an interview and I was offered a contract position.   In December, just after I had gone to New York on a holiday, my mother, Lavinia, died suddenly, and I had to turn on my heel and fly home. 

In the summer, though I was deeply worried about my employment situation and I was considering a move into journalism - the abandonment of my academic career, at the age of 41 - I was lucky enough to have a two week residency at the Heinrich Boll memorial cottage, on Achill Island in Co. Mayo.  Located on the edge of the village of Dugort and under the great breaking wave that Slievemore mountain seems to be from that easterly angle, the cottage (actually maybe two cottages knocked together,  or greatly extended from its original configuration) was purchased by Boll in the 1950s.  To him, as most clearly shown in his Irisches Tagebuch, Ireland in the 1950s was a rural Arcadia.   Given Boll's status as a German survivor of the most terrible war, this view of Ireland is hardly surprising.  But though Ireland began to change at the end of the 1950s, Boll kept on visiting Achill, until age made travel difficult for him.  In the 1980s, the house fell in desuetude and became dormant.  But in the 1990s, a combination of local Achill artists and civic activists, and the  Boll family, came together to revive and refurbish the house and make it into the beautiful artist's residence which it is now: a fitting memorial to a very fine writer.    

My remit was to write about Edward Said.  I doubt very much if Said had ever heard of Achill, let alone visited it (though he did visit Sligo, for the Yeats Summer School), but my application for a residency was accepted anyway.  I was lucky.   I got two weeks in July and of the most magnificent weather.  I travelled down to Dugort with my car full of my collection of Saidiana, and with the most ambitious writing plans.  But of course I was distracted into other things: walking the magnificent expanse of Keel beach, barefoot as I do it every time, my feet becoming youthful and pink again in the chilly Atlantic; climbing Croaghaun at the island's western extremity to stand on the brink of its summit, where it drops 2200 feet to the gray ocean in a gigantic hooded wall which even now few people ever see; eating wonderful meals at Bervie, the jewel of Achill hotels, run by old and dear friends (find it at  When not doing these things I read.  I read The Magic Mountain, sometimes reading it very late into the night, when my city-boy's timidity in the face of the almost animate blackness of the rural dark left me unable to sleep.  And I read Nicos Poulantzas's last book, State, Power, Socialism.  Poulantzas was a brilliant Greek Marxist political philosopher, influenced by but not limited to Louis Althusser, who brought a rigour to Marxist discussion of the nature of the state which it had mostly lacked - the old man himself not having given the institution of the state much thought.  Poulantzas famously debated the nature of the state with his great English interlocutor, Ralph Miliband, in the pages of the New Left Review.  This tussle, which represented a discussion of the state analagous to EP Thompson's quarrel with Althusser regarding theorizing the historical process, was one of the great Marxist arguments of the Seventies.  I enjoyed State, Power, Socialism in my own, partly Saidian, way because it addressed the spatial or geographical nature of the state institution - for a state to be a state, it must have a territory, which it turns into a jurisdiction.   It creates this juridical and political space in a wide variety of ways - demarcating borders, creating citizenship, developing a national education system, building infrastructure.  I found the whole argument deeply compelling.

I had a wonderful stay at the Boll cottage.  Needless to say, I wrote very little.   In retrospect, my sadness is that I did not invite my mother down to stay with me for a few days of the residency.  One of her many gifts to me was and is my love of Achill, which was started when I was about five years old and continues with me now.   I little thought that I'd never again see the island partly through her eyes.  Catching sight of my copy of State, Power, Socialism on the shelf now consequently brings a wash of complicated, overdetermined memories.

Here is Michael McCarthy reasserting Poulantzas's importance and value for us now:

Seven Theses on the Capitalist Democratic State


Friday, 5 April 2019

Resources from and Memories of the 1930s

Years ago, I can't remember precisely when, a touring German theatre company brought their production of Mann ist Mann to the Abbey Theatre.   That production remains one of the best and most exciting and peculiar pieces of theatre I've been fortunate enough to see.  Live music accompanied the performance, and it was all built around one piece of multi-functional set - a structure of slats, walls, panels, doors, boards, which the actors could and did radically alter as they vaulted over it, or ran past it, hitting a panel and turning a wall into a raft, or a door into a cupboard, and thereby creating the next scene.  It was the most dynamic performance imaginable and I was enthralled while also intrigued by it.

The intrigue is important, because of course Mann ist Mann is a play by Bertolt Brecht, maybe the greatest theatre experimenter of the twentieth century and certainly the most sympathetic to the Left.   I don't know as much about contemporary Irish theatre as I should, but I find the notables of that world - Marina Carr, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh - terminally boring and uninteresting, in their perennial maundering about myth and the bog of the feminine, or the obsession with monologue, or the easy conceit of bringing Las Vegas to Leenane.  Nothing in their work matches the steely ambition and radicalism of Brecht.

Brecht made his career in the era of Weimar, a brief and extraordinary efflorescence of culture and intellectual innovation, embracing both the political Left and Right in Germany - the Mann brothers, Doblin, Weiroch, Benjamin, Adorno, Bloch, and also Schmitt and Heidegger.  All too quickly, it came to a shattering and brutal end.  The end in Germany helped to bring the end to republican Spain, in a savage civil war whose anniversary passed only a few days ago.   I am posting here three essays from Jacobin: one on Brecht, a resource of hope; and two on the Spanish Civil War, warnings for the bad new days.

First, Marc Silberman

Next, Antonio Maestre

And an interview with Ian Gibson, biographer of Lorca

Sunday, 31 March 2019

The Gilets Jaunes Have Not Gone Away, You Know

The protests in Paris and elsewhere in France of the gilets jaunes have reduced in size, but they continue.  They now also face counter-demonstrations.  But the upsurge of protest since last autumn remains the largest street-political phenomenon in France since May '68.  

Too much of the mainstream coverage of the protestors has turned on the fact that the movement - if it can be called anything so coherent as a movement - contains aggressively rightwing elements as well as ideas and strands from the left.  Slapping the movement down for its alleged extremism is not an explanation or a proper mode of discussion.  The fact is that the gilets jaunes express the pain and torsions of France's current phase of neoliberalisation.  They, their actions and their variously expressed ideas run athwart the predominant and mainstream story which France's leaders use to legitimise their position and their policies.  

Here are some new or newer readings on the gilets jaunes.  From Verso, as ever:

Alessa Dell'Umbria

Full Metal Yellow Jacket

Alain Badiou interviewed

Allegiance to Macron is largely negative!

From Jacobin, Ivan Bruneau, Julian Brischi and Nicolas Renahy


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

The Revolution Snuffed Out - The Centenary of Rosa Luxemburg

Many years ago, but at a time when I ought to have been a bit less ignorant, I attended a lot of films at the inaugural Dublin Film Festival, back when it was held at the Screen Cinema, just across the road from Trinity College where I was a student.  I saw Vincent Ward's extraordinary paean to the New Zealand  landscape, Vigil.  I embarrassed myself and my mother by insisting we see Rainer Werner Fassbender's last film, Querelle, little realising that it was an adaptation from Jean Genet's play and a sweaty and theatrical celebration of sex between men.  And I saw Margaretha von Trotta's Rosa Luxemburg, starring the great Barbara Sukowa. The same team more recently made another film about another great female philosopher, Hannah Arendt.  I knew nothing about Luxemburg at this time, or about the way that German society had hung in the balance between left and right in the wake of the First World War.  But it's a compelling film about an extraordinarily charismatic and courageous woman, and it's stayed with me ever since.

Verso has published two books, in particular, to mark Luxemburg's centenary: a short account of her death, with Karl Liebknecht, at the hands of the Freikorps in 1919; and JP Nettl's enormous but highly regarded biography.  I got my hot little hands on a copy of the biography a few weeks ago, and maybe I'll get my act together in the summer and actually read it.  But for now, I must depend on lesser and shorter accounts of Rosa, and her life, and her dreams.    Here is some of what I've been reading:

A Land of Boundless Possibilities - Peter Hudis on Rosa Luxemburg

Friday, 8 March 2019

International Women's Day 2019

Few things are more dispiriting to the Irish university worker - male or female - than realising that third level education in Ireland is presided over by Mary Mitchell O'Connor, one of the dimmest, least articulate, yet most pompously self-regarding non-entities to grace the Fine Gael benches.  We find the true depths of the contempt in which our colleges and universities are held by the current government in its placing of Irish higher education in the stewardship of this gormless mannequin.

Her most recent statement in public - there don't seem to be that many, probably because her colleagues do have some sense of how muddled and incompetent she is -  was the firecracker a few days ago that International Women's Day had become an opportunity for people - mostly women, presumably - to 'skive off'.  To be frank, anyone would want to call in sick after listening for more than 30 seconds to Minister Mitchell O'Connor, and while she claims to have an interest in gender equality, she's also content to utter lazy slurs on those women lower on the ladder than herself.

Maybe, of course, it's the origins of International Women's Day in the Russian Revolution that Minister Mitchell O'Connor can't stand - if she's even aware of the fact.  But that seems all the more reason to celebrate the day, and to celebrate the women of real talent out there who are shaping and re-shaping our world.

The brilliant and appropriate image above comes from my comrade Paola Rivetti.  I provide some good reading for the day that's in it, here below:

From Verso:

International Women's Day reading list!

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Macron's Muddle - Anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

France has the largest Jewish minority of any European country.  Its record of Judeophobia during the Second World War, under the auspices of the criminal Vichy regime, was sinister and ugly.  Denial and complicity goes to the very top of French society - Francois Mitterand, for example, defended Maurice Papon, who as police prefect of Bordeaux presided over the deportation of thousands of French Jews during the Occupation.

After the war, France was closely allied to Israel.  It took part in the abortive and unprovoked attack on Egypt in 1956 to wrest control of the canal zone from Nasser's government.  It was Israel's principal armourer, until after the 1967 war.  Israel began its nuclear programme with French assistance in reactor technology in the 1950s.  

France still disports itself as an ally of Israel.  It is in this light that one must read President Macron's determination for anti-Zionism to be conflated with anti-Semitism in French law.   It's also in this light that one must remember the crass and boorish presence of Netanyahu, pushing his way to the front of the massive government-organised rally to protest at the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015, and then a few days later suggesting that Jews, no longer safe in France, should take part in the in-gathering to Israel.  

Shlomo Sand, an abrasive but fearless Israeli historian, courted controversy some years ago with his book The Invention of the Jewish People.  In scholarly terms, the controversy should have been a storm in a teacup: Sand was not doing much more than applying the ideas and methods of the great wave of Anglophone scholarship on nationalism of the 1980s (Anderson, Gellner, Hobsbawm, Hroch) to the history of the Jewish people, showing that Zionism, in common with many other ethnic nationalisms, created an 'invented tradition' by way of a retrojected story of Jewish coherence and unity.   He's recently published a powerful book on the fall of the great French intellectuals from the philosophical heights of Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault 25 years ago to the idiocy of BHL and the Islamophobia of Alain Finkielkraut today.  Here he is on Macron's new policy - from the Verso site:

And some more writing on the 'new anti-Semitism' and its relationship to Israel today, also from Verso:

Tariq Ali: Notes on Anti-Semitism, Zionism and Palestine

Monday, 25 February 2019


If there is an intellectual tradition to which I feel a particularly close affiliation, it is the Marxist tradition.  I have read more in this tradition  - in philosophy, in literary criticism, in historiography, in sociology, in political theory - than in any other.  I helped organise a large conference last year in Maynooth University to mark the old man's 200th birthday.  I have taught classes and courses on Marx and his inheritors - Adorno, Lukacs, Gramsci and Jameson.   Yet I am not always confident enough to call myself 'a Marxist'.   This is due to at least two factors: 1) the child's or student's sense that he is likely to be found out, at some point, by someone more knowledgeable than himself; 2) my curiosity about other traditions, my wish to keep myself open to other modes of thought or politics that are left-of-centre.  So I am fickle enough, or liberal enough, to wish to understand liberalism or anarchism or feminisms.  And I retain an intense interest in and admiration of Michel Foucault.

Of all  the great generation of French thinkers of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, it has been Foucault who has remained an abiding fascination to me.  And of all this generation - Deleuze, Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Althusser, Barthes, Lyotard, Bourdieu - it's been Foucault's work which I have read the most, and from which I have learned most.

This in spite of the fact that  Foucault himself was in many ways an aggressively anti-Marxist thinker.  Like many leftists of his generation, in France and elsewhere, Foucault had an early connection with Marxism, and much of his work is redolent with Marxist vocabulary and indeed Marxist themes.  But his brief membership of the PCF ended when the USSR violently suppressed the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and Foucault, in his brilliant way, had only contempt for Marxism thereafter.  It was, he scornfully opined, irredeemably a philosophy of the nineteenth century.  Foucault was intensely interested in history - it is his histories, if one can call them that, of insanity and psychiatry, of criminology and penology, of medicine, and of sexology, which we remember him for for now.  But, as Edward Said realised quickly, Foucault had no interest in 'History': any kind of divination in the historical evidence of 'grand narratives' or a totalizing architecture, any kind of optimistic patterning of a Hegelian or Marxist kind was something against which he set his face with the greatest resolution.  So Foucault was not an orthodox historian at all, and both Marxist and more conventional positivist historians expended (and still expend) large amounts of energy attacking him for his strange evidence and tendentious interpretations (yet what interest is there in any interpretation of the data of social or cultural history that is not in some way 'tendentious'?).  Foucault was rather, certainly by the 1970s, a Nietzschean genealogist, someone who wanted to undermine the Whiggish tendency in conventional historiography by thinking of historical processes not as the outworking of great ideas (liberty, democracy, enlightenment) or as the struggle of the oppressed for freedom or as the expansion of a 'mode of production', but rather as confused fields of force.  History writing, therefore, was a matter of reading texts and archives as palimpsests, scored over and torn by multiple energies and agencies.   The genealogist needed to be able to read in lateral or even reversed ways, as well as searching for conventional developmental patterns. And the knowledge thus produced must always be understood as perspectival,  partial, as the product of an interest, of an angle, even as a weapon: never a transcendent value in itself.  'Knowledge', Foucault declared, and one can imagine the mischievous, wolfish smile, 'is for cutting'.

Foucault's own life was equally remarkable.  He was born into an irreproachably bourgeois or haut-bourgeois family in Poitiers, but he left his home, ground his way through the machine that is the elite French training of philosophers at the great lycées of Paris and then at the École normale supérieure, and emerged in the 1960s as one of the major figures of the Parisian philosophical and literary avant-garde.  Yet, though it was in this decade that he published the epochal books that  made his name - History of Madness, The Birth of the Clinic and The Order of Things - he also spent some of this time as a peripatetic cultural official and agent, working for the French government in Poland, Germany and Sweden.  In 1966 he took up a position at the University of Clermont-Ferrand (though he commuted there from Paris).  When his lover Daniel Defert was deployed to Tunisia as part of his national service, Foucault taught at the University of Tunis for two years. In 1970, he was elected to a chair at the College de France in Paris, and he finally found his place, becoming an icon - for once the term's use is justified - of the city's intellectual life, protesting for prisoners' and gay people's rights, and delivering public lecture series which were attended by thousands.

Foucault died of AIDS in 1984.  He was only 57.  Since his death, though he had enjoined his friends not to play Max Brod to his Kafka and for no more of his work to be published, a slow trickle of his lectures, scattered essays and seminars has turned into a flood.  The fourth volume of the History of Sexuality has recently been published, and all thirteen of his College de France lecture series.  Foucault remains our contemporary in multifarious ways.  He is still a thinker to reckon with.  And he was a great writer, too.  Back in 2000, relaunching the New Left Review, Perry Anderson argued that it should be a matter of honour for those thinking, writing, teaching on the Left to write as well as or better than their antagonists.  Foucault - in his extraordinary account of the 'great confinement' in History of Madness, or his reading of Velazquez's Las  Meninas at the opening of The Order of Things, or his depiction of the torture and execution of Damiens in Discipline and Punish - is an exemplar of that standard.

Thomas Lemke is one of Foucault's most  important interpreters in Germany.  Here is an extract from his major study of Foucault, now published for the first time in English by Verso Books:

Foucault's Immanent Contradictions


Sunday, 27 January 2019


Today is Holocaust Memorial Day.  In yesterday's Irish Times, articles were published including a piece by the liberal Zionist and gallery owner Oliver Sears, whose mother is a Holocaust survivor, and an interview with American historian Deborah Lipstadt by Hugh Linehan.   The interview with Lipstadt - who is best known for her legal confrontation with the Holocaust denier David Irving - is rather too gentle with her willingness to conflate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.

There simply is no doubt that this conflation is widely used nowadays to police dissent on the policies and nature of the State of  Israel.  Israel has successfully 'weaponised' the Holocaust and its commemoration as cover for  objectionable elements of its foreign policy.  So,  in the same Irish Times in recent days,  we have been told that the Israeli government has given Ireland's ambassador in Tel Aviv a severe dressing down because of the discussion in Dail Eireann of Senator Frances Black's Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill.  The Israeli government deems the bill 'anti-Semitic'.   It seems not to understand that  the Irish government is itself against the bill but that in a parliamentary democracy of the kind Israel so often wishes to proclaim itself an exemplar, a government cannot necessarily (fortunately) dictate what bills are brought forward by the opposition.

Commemoration is always political, as we know very well in Ireland.    The Holocaust must be remembered,  but it should not be hypostatized into an historically unapproachable, transcendental and ontologically unique event which is beyond analysis.  Arno Mayer is one of the great historians of the Nazi extermination of European Jews.  Here he considers this issue in an essay reflecting in 1989 on his masterpiece Why Did The Heavens Not Darken?

Memory and History: On the Poverty of Remembering and Forgetting the Judeocide