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Thursday, 6 December 2018

The White Review and The Lottery


My local convenience store is always busy, the queue for the check-out snaking back into the aisles. It’s a shop for poor people, of whom there are many in English south coast seaside towns. I don’t stand out very much: I’m old, male, pale and overweight. I don’t have a posh accent though even when I dress down my clothes are better than the standard cotton- and wool-free issue in a queue where you will also search in vain for colours which aren’t drab or, in the case of the trainers, white. Even the young migrants and refugees seem to get the message; they dress pretty much the same though clear skin and groomed hair does often mark them out. As does the fact that they are rarely overweight.

I can see from my position in the queue that poor people buy white bread, frozen pizzas, alcohol and tobacco. On the last two, they take a considerable tax hit. They take another hit when they buy the lottery tickets and scratch cards prominently displayed, another tax on the poor to provide a pot called Lottery Funding..


A recent business trip found me in one of those cupboards which pass as London hotel rooms, this one located conveniently for Euston station. I had a few hours to myself and wandered down through Bloomsbury and into the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, opposite the British Museum, which is the shopfront of the Craft Potters Association. I’ve liked studio pottery since the 1970s when I lived in Devon and every village had a craft potter. It was a cheap outing to visit the Free Admission studios and come away with a modestly priced pot. Nowadays, I go to the Ceramics Centre when I need a nice present for someone and, sometimes, just to treat myself. I checked and the Centre does not seem to attract Lottery funding; it’s just the national retail outlet for serious, self-employed studio potters with a prestige location opposite the British Museum.

Then I went round the corner to the London Review of Books shop where I like to browse and have tea and cake in the small café which is really too cramped to be a pleasure  - London rents again and a bit of a challenge for the overweight. The clientele is very well-dressed here, stylishly so, and they are thin. 

I don’t hold it against the shop that when a couple of years ago I walked in proferring Sale or Return copies of my then-new book, The Best I Can Do (2016), the nice young man at the counter after handling a copy very gingerly, and without opening it, declared “It’s not really our sort of thing”:

Click on Image to Magnify

I had failed to realise that things have changed etc since the 1970s when I walked my first book into London bookshops and they happily relieved me of stacks of them: 


Browsing in the shop, I saw a copy of The White Review which looked rather nice at £12.99 for a couple of hundred pages and I thought I would be interested to read the opening round table discussion “On Universities”, a subject to which I return from time to time even though twenty years ago I quit universities for self-employment. I’d already come across a couple of favourable references to the magazine so I bought it, something to read later in my hotel cupboard.

On the back flap, the magazine claims to be a “space for a new generation to express itself, unconstrained by form, subject or genre” though not, of course, by generation. Then I went to the page of editorial details and found the little icon which tells you that it is Lottery funded through Arts Council England. It’s something the poor are paying for.


I headed to the Roundtable discussion “On Universities” What will the new generation have to say about them, I wonder?

Around the table, four people are talking about pensions. They are excited because recently they have been on strike, actually handing out leaflets on picket lines. About pensions. Their pensions. Their employers plan to replace what are called Final Salary or Defined Benefit pensions with pensions which are a function of contributions made but where the final value of the pension cannot be guaranteed. This has led them to strike.

Now I cannot think of a case of a teachers’ union or a university teachers’ union in this country striking over anything other than money. It’s one reason why I think that teachers and lecturers are a fairly materialistic bunch, which is not much more than to say that they generally  have middle class values focused around things like home ownership, schools which will give their children a leg up in the world, foreign holidays, lottery-subsidised theatre tickets - and pensions. 

Many years ago as a university lecturer with strong leftist views I would not join the Association of University Teachers. To my way of thinking, I had a pleasant, taxpayer-funded job which had no great social utility but which left me with a lot of time to read, think and write – things which interested me, as did teaching though I rather doubted that anyone benefited much from that. To have joined an organisation dedicated to improving my own pay, to strike even - well, I would have needed a much stronger sense of entitlement than I possessed.

I have to declare that, despite this, I am now in receipt of a Defined Benefit pension, paid by the Universities Superannuation Scheme, and have been a beneficiary since I took early retirement at fifty. Equally, I can honestly say that I had no idea before that age of just how privileged I was. Thinking about my pension was not something I did. Now it seems that the  new generation thinks about pensions from the very beginning, and feels they have to.

I want to tell two stories.

There were lots of university jobs available in the 1960s and 1970s because of university expansion. Salaries were modest but I think there were plenty of applicants. I was sitting in a circle one day and a political comrade was telling us that he had just been interviewed for a job at LSE. He was scornful. They kept going on about pensions, he said. They even told me that there was a widow’s pension. Pause. I told them I didn’t yet have a widow in prospect. Laughter.

Between graduation aged 21 in 1968 and a university lecturer appointment in 1978 which became long term, I did one thing and then I did another. They did not add up to a career path. I had to go back to a Record of Work to complete the following chronological list of things done: two years as Ph D student in Philosophy, a grant supplemented by some teaching; one year as university temporary lecturer in philosophy; one year in Paris on a Leverhulme European studentship; one year as a Liberal Studies lecturer in a technical college; a few months as a British Film Institute research fellow in television studies; a few months being ill (hepatitis); working  as a waiter for a summer; one year teaching history and social studies in a comprehensive school; nine months as a youth and community worker; nine months writing and completing an M Phil dissertation, partly funded by part-time university teaching of political theory; a year as a senior lecturer in Communication Studies - the salary from that when added to my partner's big enough to secure us our first mortgage, aged thirty.

In this period, I also edited one book (Counter Course, Penguin Education 1972), wrote another (the Language, Truth and Politics of 1975) and published a small research monograph (Television and the February 1974 General Election).

One of the generally recognised positive features of not settling straight into a defined career path (and lots of people didn’t), was that every time you changed job you could TAKE OUT YOUR PENSION, all that money they had taken off you against your will and which you could now reclaim and use to pay down debts or go on holiday. It was wonderful. It’s only now, coming across the thinking of the new generation in The White Review, that I realise I should have been thinking of myself as belonging to some Precariat, not knowing where my next meal was coming from. I should have been afraid for the future and angry in the present. I am not quite convinced. I was young and making the most of it and I hope there are people still doing that. But let’s briefly look at what else the Roundtable can come up with “On Universities”.


The discussion goes off into a series of complaints about the marketization of higher education, the casualisation of labour, students as consumers, failures of diversity and equality policies, and quite a lot about sexual harassment. There is nothing about the curriculum, where maybe they think Problem Solved, and really only Beaumont tries to integrate the discussion into something resembling a theoretical discourse (in Beaumont’s case, broadly Marxist). Yaqoob takes the role of hands-on union representative.

I found the content unremarkable and conformist, except in interesting remarks made by Capildeo. Capildeo challenges the religious language of “vocation” but also says about sexual harassment that, in contrast to some other approaches,“a straight down the line witch hunt would be a progressive move”. In a context where Twitter is spoken of in positive terms - something quite new to me - (“It’s that thing of following the right people” - Charman), I hope that Capildeo is simply being provocative.

Two academics from Cambridge (Charman and Yaqoob), one from UCL (Beaumont), and Capildeo from Leeds didn’t come across overall as a strong university challenge team. Disappointing. I think the poor deserve better for their lottery tax.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Review: Anna Burns Milkman

Now I couldn’t have made it up and you couldn’t have made it up which is two reasons why Milkman ought to have won the Man Booker Prize, which it did and no thanks to the prognosticators who said that it couldn’t and wouldn’t but it did so there’s justice in the world even if it is a rare thing and not to go unnoticed which this book won’t because now there will be a lot of construing of it, not that the construers will be any better than the prognosticators.

This is an excellent book even at a fairly demanding 348 pages and ten or twelve hours of my time and I don’t know about yours. The temptation will be to reduce it, annex it, to preferred themes which already existed before it was written and so it didn’t really need to be written except to illustrate those themes which it does. The smarter move is to avoid the reduction and look at what the author does and does not do.

First, the author sustains a hypnotic style which is original, quirky and a bit cracked, a bit demented and in order to give voice to a narrator who is all those things. But in case you should think the author  at one with her narrator, the author supplies the narrator with a sense of humour which could not at all belong to someone a bit cracked, a bit demented but is just very funny but of course in a way which is quirky, a bit cracked, a bit demented but does make you laugh so that really the author must be completely sane and thus in full control of whatever insanity her narrator may or may not evince which in any case is rather less insanity than manifested by the cast of characters assembled around her, notwithstanding their bogus claims to greater sanity.

Second, in anonymising place and characters – the city does not have a name and nor do any of the significant characters – the author succeeds in escaping from direct social history and political commentary, turning her very small geographical enclave– a few Catholic streets of one city Belfast – into that grain of sand in which we can see the whole world. This is where she may remind you of Kafka (mentioned once in the novel) and reminded me a bit of Ishiguro who also likes to abstract from precise details of time and place in order to produce something more let’s say imagined and leaving to the imagination.

Third, in addition to the claustrophobic band of core characters – the narrator, her ma, her maybe boyfriend, Milkman, real milkman, … who are locked in different ways into their world of perpetual conflict, the author who knows about Greek and Roman things, provides a contrast, a counterpoint, a chorus maybe in two grouped sets of characters: the narrator’s own wee sisters who are on some other planet entirely based on shrewd child understanding of the planet currently on offer, and later in the narrative the issues women, early 1970s second wave feminists, also as if on another planet where the issues are different to those recognised by the host community which they baffle. Both wee sisters and the issues women provide a great deal of the laughter which this book will yield.

Well, I don’t want to do a plot summary. The book is well-worth reading. I would have made it shorter and I would have very occasionally been a bit more careful about anachronism writing now about the 1970s. But read it, go with its flow, and don’t plonk it into one of the moulds insisted upon now by those always with us wanting to make our worlds claustrophobic, as if novels are written to illustrate trending hashtags. *

* Added 13 December 2018: As if to disagree, here is Writing Magazine (January 2019) commenting on the work of  "bestselling Irish novelist" Celia Ahern: "the stories, written with charm,kindness and empathy, are well-timed for the #MeToo climate" (page 16)

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Review: Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Philosophy and Conceptual Art

When I reviewed Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking on this blog ( 22 April 2018) it got me thinking again about conceptual art, something I hadn’t really done for twenty years – my last serious engagement, a long piece I wrote in response to the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition, the prize won by Gillian Wearing:

So now I wrote a short essay setting out my principal (and non-original) objection to conceptual art, that you don’t need to experience it first hand to talk about it – a fact which makes all the expenditure of time and effort and use of (expensive) gallery space seem rather pointless. A version of this essay appears in the bi-monthly Philosophy Now (Issue 129, December 2018/January 2019).

Then I thought I ought to find out what others had been thinking since I did my thinking in 1997 and Amazon pointed me towards the 2007 book I am now reviewing. For a collection of essays by professional philosophers, it’s really quite readable. Most contributors proceed charitably, trying to find a way or ways to accommodate conceptual art (whether narrowly or loosely defined) within the traditions of mostly gallery-based visual art. If anything, they bend over backwards to give it legitimacy.

If it is accepted that conceptual art is an art of ideas, then for example it’s possible to argue that the ideas have aesthetic value rather in the way that a mathematical proof can be elegant or a chess move beautiful – this is an argument developed by Elisabeth Schellekens (page 85 for the specific examples I have given). But this leaves the question open, Why do we need anything more than the ideas? Why do we need the installation or the performance, the bit that costs money and takes up our time and  a gallery space?

Schellekens uses the word “boldness” and another contributor speaks of the audaciousness of conceptual art. The founding work for conceptualism, Duchamp’s Fountain (a male urinal) is endlessly talked about, even now, because it took nerve and cheek to put the urinal into an art gallery, and nerve and cheek often get us talking. Lots of people could have had the ideas which conceptual art occupies itself with; very few people would have dared do anything about them in the fashion done by conceptual artists. So the embodied bits of the ideas are provocations, though it may be very unclear what they are meant to provoke. In contrast, an anarchist who throws a bomb or a terrorist who plants one usually has a clear idea of what they want to provoke.

The invocation of boldness and audaciousness is meant to give point to the installations and the performances. But Schellekens realises that this move effectively links conceptual art to things like jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86) and Margaret Boden references (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the 20th century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think the Allais case allows a different take on conceptual art. I think most of it belongs in the broader category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institutition. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be grouped into a distinct sub-category of pranks  by two important features:

(1)   Humourlessness
(2)    A sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery, but conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art , which is also used  several times in this volume as justification for treating conceptual art as art (for example, by Lopes at page 241).

The obvious counter-example to my claim (1) would be Banksy’s recent auto-destructive prank at Sotheby’s which was indeed very funny. But that is in great contrast to most of the stuff the contributors to this book are labouring over.
My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in this collection, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, some of which ends up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue what they are doing. For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Academic Publishing in Olden Times - and Now

I suppose everyone remembers their first time. Mine was in the pages of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research which in 1973 printed my first CV- citeable academic journal publication. Its title is perhaps indicative of how they did things differently then, “The Experience of Politics”.  I find it hard to imagine that anyone would get away with anything like that now.

Let me remind younger readers of olden times. You or your secretary typed up the paper and you (or your secretary – I had one at the age of 23, a temporary university lecturer) put it in an envelope and posted it off to the Editor, in this case at SUNY Buffalo. The journal published no guidelines for submission, other than to note that “Papers submitted for publication will not be returned unless accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope, or return postage …”. Yes, that was it. But in April 1971 I did receive an acknowledgement of safe receipt and in July 1971 an acceptance – “there will, however, be a considerable period of unavoidable delay …” Not yet used to such delays, I wrote impatiently in March 1973 to enquire about date of publication; I was scheduled for June and would soon be receiving a galley proof. And June it was, calloo, callay.

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research was I thought a mid-ranking philosophical journal. (It still exists). It was indexed in The Philosopher’s Index at Bowling Green University. Since my article appeared without an abstract, I was asked to provide one for the Index and still have their proof of my text. It ends “It’s quite a good paper, if I may say so”. It had not been edited out, so I assumed my Abstract had gone unread. (I ran these little experiments in those days and have just started up again: see the Blog post on this site dated 11 September 2018 ).

 Click on Image to Magnify

I would like history to be my judge, but Google Scholar does not index this quite good paper. It may have been cited somewhere, but in all probability, not. I have no correspondence relating to it.

This I now understand has nothing to do with me; it is a quite general problem. 

The other day, I looked at one of the Word docs. on my desktop and thought it might make an academic journal article. I prospected but rapidly gave up. The whole process of submission seems to have been bureaucratised to the nth degree and I set that fact (which would raise my blood pressure if ignored) against a couple of others. Even if accepted, it is highly unlikely that the Word doc. would find any new readers, even more unlikely that it would end up being cited. I googled and the consensus seems to be that in the humanities, about half of all published articles go completely unread and about eighty percent will go uncited by anyone, not even the author’s Facebook friends. Since in retirement I am not trying to build a CV, why bother? I have no answer to that question other than, Why indeed?

And why would anyone bother, unless to build a CV? Well, there is of course a gambler’s chance that your article will be one of those that gets read and a smaller gambler’s chance that it will be cited – though, of course, there is only a fifty-fifty chance that anyone will see the citation and, worse, one of my online sources makes it the criterion for an article having been read by anyone that its first two pages should have been read. That’s tough on the citations.

There is a further reason why I baulk at the academic journal. In the past and even now, the journal took copyright. Oh, we were told that it relieved you of the burden of negotiating permissions and they threw in promises of profit-sharing. But there are two big practical disadvantages, as I have discovered. First, when putting together anthologies, editors apply to copyright holders not authors. This can mean, to give an example from my own experience, that an editor may pick an early version of something and miss out on the fact that there exists a later, more polished attempt on offer. You could have told them, if asked. Second, when in retirement you put together  a collection of your own work and try to do the dutiful bit of obtaining “kind permission” (obs. “without charge”), you discover that your journal is now owned by some conglomerate using an online permissions program which doesn’t even recognise the journal, now defunct, which it owns. More blood pressure problems as I assembled Studies in Pragmatics (2017).

As a result, you will find the recent would-be article on this Blog for 11 September 2018. 

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Review: Ali Smith, Winter

This is one of those books I picked up from the Waterstones table. I knew the name Ali Smith but had not read any of her work; nor did I know anything about her other than that she was well-known (and even then that may merely have been an association created by linking A. Smith to Z. Smith).

So before sitting down to write this review, I thought I should find out a bit about A.Smith. Literally the first thing Wikipedia tells you is that Ali Smith is Ali Smith CBE FRSL – Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In other words, a subscriber to the curtseying side (as opposed to the bowing and scraping side) of the British Establishment. It will affect how this review turns out, since it was originally conceived in the naïve belief that author and reader were more or less on the same side, unwilling either to curtsey or scrape.

In most respects, Winter is a fine novel, full of wonderful images and startling prose. A large part  could be considered a sustained riff on A Christmas Carol taking us first into Christmas Present, then into Past, and very tentatively into Future. The novel is a four-hander and after an opening nod to Dickens (“God was dead: to begin with” page 3) introduces one of the main characters, Sophia, hallucinating “a disembodied head. It was the head of a child, just a head …” (page 7). I am afraid that from this point on I sustained myself through the folie à deux between Sophia and the head with an image from A Muppet Christmas Carol which boasts an ethereal Spirit of Christmas, a child with a child’s voice, whose business it is to address Scrooge. If anyone in this story is Scrooge, it is Sophia. I may have missed something, but the image in my muppet head helped me through the magical realism passages.

Sophia’s son Arthur (Art) is visiting his mother for Christmas and having split up with Charlotte, the girl-friend he has promised to introduce, employs for a thousand pounds a homeless person, Lux (who I want to call a street urchin but she’s about nineteen), to accompany him as a pretend Charlotte – this enables hints of pantomime comedy. It is Lux who realises that Sophia is in a bad way and persuades Arthur to summons his mother’s estranged sister, Iris, to join the Christmas party. Thus are the actors assembled.

Smith characterises each of them in different and striking ways, partly through flashbacks to Christmas Past. I guess that no one will spontaneously Favourite Sophia or Arthur; after that Likes will split between Iris and Lux. My click goes to Lux, who of course, turns out to be much more than a street urchin. She has bags of empathy, is very funny, and has an excellent knowledge of English Language and Literature, despite being Croatian ( a choice primarily designed to bring in a very Stranger to the story, but secondarily to enable a small riff about Brexit and the insecurity felt by EU citizens in a hostile environment).

Lux has a wonderful set piece at pages 198-99 where she delivers a child’s and then and then and then plot summary of Cymbeline. "Phew! Iris says” at the end of it, to which Lux replies “And that’s only half the story”, which as stand-up comedy would bring the house down.

So, anyway, I’m hearting it for Lux though I know full well that I’m not in with a chance because she’s a lesbian, though that bald fact really plays no part in the story.


Now, the difficult bit. Ali Smith introduces Politics into her novel in a very direct, chunky and wilfully clunky way. Sometimes the narratives are quite general; at other times they are very precise and very local. Sir Nicholas Soames (who he?) gets into the story (pages 89 – 91 where the voice is authorial) as does Theresa May (pages 233 – 34 where the voice is that of Iris). This choice in favour of Politics is discussed, briefly, at pages 317 – 18 where Arthur asks Sophia and Iris for their answers to the question, “What’s the difference between politics and art?” and gets two versions of Keats for an answer.

I am not convinced either by Smith’s handling of her material or by her choices, but even more so now that I discover that Ali Smith CBE FRSL  and I are not on the same side after all. The moment you accept to be a Commander of their Order of their British Empire, you lose your authority to say in a convincing authorial voice some of the things Ali Smith says. That is why authors should always think twice before accepting to wear chains round their necks, they weigh too heavily. I wait to see what happens to Kazuo Ishiguro's prose now that he is both Nobel and Knight.

As for the handling, I can see that the deliberate clunkiness is a way of locating us in that everyday situation where even our best thoughts are distracted by the latest News and sent off in angry or frustrated directions. But I’m still not sure I would do Clunk very often. 

As for the content, I think as a general rule one should avoid local bit players. Think of all those countries which have (or had – like Italy in the last century) new Prime Ministers every five minutes, none of whom you or I could name. Theresa May is really in the same league. God may see the meanest sparrow fall, but he isn’t watching Theresa May at all. She’s just another one among many cardboard illustrations of the fact that the Church of England was always a bad idea. The fact that she is probably worse at curtseying than Ali Smith does not tip any balance in Ali Smith's favour.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Review: Jean Baudrillard The System of Objects

This book was published fifty years ago in 1968 as Le Système des Objets. It was a doctoral dissertation, examined by Roland Barthes, Pierre Bourdieu and Henri Lefebvre. That fact is surprising since the book is written in the style of (French) higher journalism or belles lettres – think Roland Barthes Mythologies – with no bibliography or index and very few footnotes. Maybe the dissertation was made suitable for popularisation by taking out all the usual apparatus. Most of the few footnotes refer to American works of the 1950s and 1960s which address themselves to the understanding of “consumer society” and which Baudrillard had read in English – in itself, rather unusual at the time. Vance Packard figures prominently.

Vance Packard was an author I was given as supplementary reading in 1963 - 64 as a sixteen year old grammar school pupil in England. I have found my  handwritten review of The Hidden Persuaders which lists its implications for neo-classical economics. So advertising seeks to make demand less income and price elastic, thus raising average revenue curves (I summarise); advertising also makes Says Law (“supply creates its own demand”) true and postpones indefinitely the onset of diminishing marginal utility; advertising distorts resource allocation, distorts consumer choice, and undermines consumer rationality.

Though these may be implications of Packard’s work, Packard was writing popular social psychology / sociology not economics. I have simply put his book into relation with my “A” level Economics syllabus and re-framed the material.

Baudrillard puts Packard through the laundry of Parisian thought. The result is sometimes straightforwardly derivative, notably of Roland Barthes (who is very occasionally cited). For the rest, the washing powder is provided by a very generalised “Freud and Marx” who are rarely named and maybe only once (page 203) more precisely referenced. A cultural collusion between author and presumed reader exists in the very simple assumption that everyone will know what you are talking about and that everyone will assume with you that it is all true. A reasonable assumption in 1960s Paris. That it is now a period piece is perhaps attested by the fact that this 1996 translation was financially assisted by the French Ministry of Culture.

The trouble with the laundry work is that the result is a very diffuse and essayistic text. It’s undoubtedly full of ideas but you would need an eight week seminar course to go through it, pick out main themes, and subject them to scrutiny to see if they stand up and cohere. I’m not going to do that here.

At some point in the distant past I owned copies of the French paperback of this book (with a flat iron on the cover) and of its successor Pour Une Critique de l’Economie Politique du Signe (1972). In the early seventies, Penguin sent me a copy of one of these books – I forget which though I suspect the latter – and asked my opinion on whether it was worth translating. I can’t find my report, but I know that I answered “No”. 

Nearly fifty years later, I can see that the wide sweep of this book has many merits and that along the way Baudrillard does in fact italicise numerous fairly precise claims that he wants to make. Baudrillard is making a serious attempt at understanding what is distinctive of “consumer society”, how it changes human relationships towards objects, how objects move from having primarily use value to having primarily exchange value – not monetary exchange value but exchange value as signs within systems of signification – and how those signs connect to desires and libidinal drives about which Baudrillard is insistent (and in a way which I think would now be less fashionable in a more prudish society).

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Review: Jacqueline Yallop, Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves

This is an interesting, well-written book about top end collecting in Victorian England, nicely presented with big print and proper spacing. The arguments are developed through case studies of five wealthy and determined collectors and particular emphasis is given to the developing relationships between private collectors and public collecting institutions (museums, art galleries). Two of Yallop’s collectors double as public servants and one as a dealer. The chapter on Charlotte Schreiber is the most interesting, especially when it develops a modest but well-grounded account  of how and why some forms of collecting were consistently regarded as the preserve of men but some niches were offered to female collectors in areas like chinaware. I would have thought a monograph could be made out of this chapter. There is no discussion of lower forms of collecting and though this is a book about Victorian England, the words “stamp collecting" nowhere appear.

The title is misleading. All of her subjects move away from magpie collecting towards a more informed and structured approach. None are hoarders in any pathological sense. Though they benefit from the proceeds of Imperial looting expeditions, they generally display a high degree of probity in their actions.

There is one puzzling discussion of fakes in chapter 17 where the example chosen (a bust of Flora attributed to da Vinci) is not in any obvious sense a fake or a forgery, just work someone has done to amuse himself; no one appears to pass it off as a da Vinci. The narrative offered supports only the conclusion that the work was misattributed; no one seems to have had any intent to defraud. Indeed, the principal victim is the expert who attributed it in the first place.

I noticed a couple of mistakes. At page 264, “George III” should read “George IV”. At page 281 a mid-century transatlantic crossing time of fifty days is given. With the introduction and development of steamships, crossing time dropped from about ten days in the 1850s to about seven days in the 1880s.