Search This Blog

Thursday 24 February 2022

Review: Rita Felski Hooked


I was introduced to Rita Felski’s work in 2020 when I consulted what in England we call an Early Career Academic about an essay on Lolita that I was writing (now published as Nabokov’s Dream); he suggested I read The Limits of Critique (2015). In that book, Felski writes about the importance of the pleasure we get from reading novels or looking at paintings, and so on. In this new book she starts from a reflection on the often odd and idiosyncratic ways in which we become attached, or attach ourselves, to a work - maybe re-reading it frequently or humming the tune every day. (In another book I was reading recently, an anecdote was told about the philosopher Gilbert Ryle who was once asked if he read any fiction. Oh , yes. Jane Austen. All of them, once a year).

In Felski’s work there is a background hum of unease with what has happened to the humanities during her career and even before her career begun. Both institutional and broader cultural pressures have turned teachers of the humanities into purveyors of artificially narrowed pre-occupations often enough combined with a narrow-minded demand for conformity, usually in favour of some politico-cultural orientation deemed progressive but not always seen as such by outsiders. (So, for example, myself I see  the “critique” of cultural appropriation as both a bit absurd - because opposing itself to what is probably the main dynamic of all cultural change - and a bit backward-looking - which is to say, reactionary).

Felski occupies a prominent position in the academy and her own particular reservations (cultural appropriation is not something she discusses in this book, I should add, though it often involves getting hooked on something) are expressed in a more nuanced way than might be used by an outsider and perhaps some are not expressed at all.

Her response to claustrophobia is to try to open up the field of what can and should be done under the rubrics of “The Humanities” guided by a theoretical commitment to the Actor Network Theory (ANT) pioneered by Bruno Latour - who I haven’t read. But it seems that the slogan of ANT might well be, “Only connect!” Let me give an example of what might be involved in an ANT-ish opening up. (This is my own example and will show whether I have grasped the point or not).

Suppose we have hitherto worked on the assumption that response to a painting begins at the point when we stand before it (at an appropriate distance) on a gallery wall.  Well, how did we get to that Point? In the immediate past, we ascended the steps of what is probably an architecturally impressive building (that counts as an actor in ANT), passed through turnstiles and past security guards and gallery attendants (there are people who want to steal paintings because they are often worth a LOT of money and the guards remind us of that so they are actors too). We have  side-stepped other gallery-goers who may look older or younger than us, better dressed or worse, unevenly distributed by sex and ethnicity in ways which we may note as placing us in a majority or a minority. So many actors! Eventually, we get to the painting only to discover that twenty seven people got there before us. (Tourist tip: If you are thinking of visiting the Louvre to look at the Mona Lisa…well, Forget It).

All this contributes towards the state of mind in which you at last (hopefully) look at your painting, the identity of which you may now check against the gallery label (another actor).

All that has happened since you climbed the steps has gone into creating the state of mind in which you now stand before the painting. In addition, of course, there is all the preparatory reading you may have done about the painter whose work you are now looking at, or about the period or school within which they worked, and the title of the course requirement essay you have to write. What chance some supposedly pure unmediated response to what is now in front of you?

You might feel that your chances of unmediated response are better when you walk down the street listening to a new album through headphones until one song catches you and even hooks you enough for you to spool back and listen again. And perhaps again. This scenario is also capable of being written up in the terms of Actor-Network Theory,though it might seem that a sudden epiphany, a break -out experience in which you suddenly and unexpectedly attach to something with delight is actually a breaking out from your usual networks. Epiphanies could be described as an unlearning experience. (See footnote) .

Felski is particularly interested in this kind of experience and it explains the title of her book. She thinks we are often coy about admitting that something has hooked us, and especially so in a college classroom where to admit to such enthusiasms might seem out of place - a bit childish, perhaps; a bit down-market; a bit politically incorrect - there are now many readers, female and male, coy about owning up to  enthusiasm for Lolita, novel or films.

There’s not much to argue with in what Felski argues. But the danger - which she seeks to address - is that in place of scholarly narrowness and puritan exclusion we end up with seminar discussions of marshmallow softness, lectures which are hopelessly idiosyncratic (…if I may digress for a moment, I recall Bob Marley and the Wailers ... You what? Yes, it was their first UK tour (Awed silence).Yes, it was in 1972…. (long digression)), and books which though interesting don’t close in on any claims which might exclude other claims. And I’m not sure about claims which do not exclude other claims but rather seek to bundle them all up into a narrative which nods to every interested party. 

I'm also doubtful that the dynamics of places like university seminars can actually accommodate every interested party: in my experience (and it may have been my fault) they tended to gravitate towards vicarage tea parties in which the tutor has fingers crossed that no one will say Fuck or take their clothes off (the latter once, the former more frequently). 

I enjoyed reading Felski’s book. She has an especial talent for incorporating references to the literature - and there are many - into the flow of her writing, so that you are never confronted with Tombstone Quotes which always lead me to the thought that they might be skippable.


(Helen Thaventhiran writes an interesting review of Felski’s book in London Review of Books, 27 January 2022 and Rita Felski has a Letter in reply on 24 February).


Footnote: This is how I characterise them in an essay "Lifelong Unlearning" included in Duncan Barford, editor, The Ship of Thought (2002) and in a revised version in my Silence Is So Accurate (2017)





Tuesday 22 February 2022

Benjamin J B Lipscomb The Women are Up to Something.


This book is better than its rather desperate American titling - it's published by Oxford University Press America rather than OUP Oxford and that is relevant. It’s fluently written and readable, making no great intellectual demands. But it will also help, I suspect, if as  reader you are rather over-awed by OXFORD, a place you would never dream of calling Oggsford or Oxfraud.

For his American audience, Lipscomb provides an accurate, lucid guide to how the University is organised - the collegiate structure, the tutorial system, methods of examination in Arts subjects, character of the degree courses, and so on. But he doesn’t see that many of these things have their downsides nor does he see through the mysteries.

The college system, for example, has always allowed for the creation of backwaters of one kind or another where students may get a poor deal, academically, though the accommodation and the food and the team sports may be good. The colleges have been clublands and their Fellows often enough people - historically, all male and until recently bachelors - only too happy to settle down to a life-time of boarding school existence with the usual private languages, arcane rituals, insider dealing, and hysterical feuds - the latest 21st century one at Christ Church, very obscure and lasting several years, has used up a great deal of money from its supposedly charitable funds and diverted the energy of Fellows from their proper work.

Lipscomb makes sustained early reference to the use of unseen written examinations as the basis on which scholarships, prizes, and degree classifications are awarded and is clearly awed by the thought of how brilliant the scripts must sometimes have been. He is not the only one: Oxford philosopher Michael Dummett seeking to explain (many years after the 1941 event) how Elizabeth Anscombe got a First Class degree in Literae Humaniores (Classical Studies) despite History papers which were indifferent or bad says to an interviewer, “her philosophy papers must have been astonishing” (p 73). The truth is, we can’t know whether they were or not because all those unseen hand-written examination papers, scribbled under invigilated time pressure in the Examination Schools, were burnt very soon after the event. And until recently, no external examiner would have had a chance to look at them before bonfire night since OXFORD saw no need for external examiners. From the nineteenth century on it provided them to upstart provincial universities who, of course, needed to be policed. (By the way, Oxford is not in London; it’s in heartland Church & King provincial England, but don’t mention that …). Anyway,  we can’t know how astonishing some of this student scribbling was; none of it was ever published to show what a Model Essay might look like. In Anscombe’s case, all it took for her to get a First Class degree - against the norm that to do that you had to show some merit in all your papers - was for the Philosophers to outvote the Historians on the Examination Board and leave them to grumble later over the port. 

I discovered about the burning in 1967. I had sat for a university-wide undergraduate  prize in Economics awarded on the basis of the usual timed examinations, answering previously unseen questions. One paper required that just one question should be answered in the three hour time allocation. I wrote an answer to the question, “Is Economic Growth a Good Thing?”  - precisely the kind of “general” question in which Oxford specialises and about which Lipscomb writes several times. I was pleased with what I had written - it must have run to three or five thousand words. So when I got the letter telling me I had been awarded the prize (worth about twenty percent on top of my total annual income) I wrote asking if I could have my script back because I thought I could work on it and improve it. Back came the reply: It’s already been burnt. So no one will ever know how astonishing (or not) it was and don’t ask me because I don’t know either. 

(Imagine an Art College where the drawings and paintings submitted for your Degree Show were assessed and then burnt).

You might say that the mysteries of Oxford are those of a literate culture which has never placed high value on the written word, and preferred oral debate, oral traditions, and gossip in the cloisters. 

Lipscomb is good when he situates the formation and rise of his selected Quartet of female philosophers in the context of the Second World War. Though the four have been selected as a friendship group all born in 1919 - thus completely excluding their near contemporary, Mary Warnock, born in 1924 and also a noted Oxford moral philosopher - the four were part of a war-time cohort of female students who benefitted from the sudden disappearance of all the young men sent off to war. Only the men who were old, infirm, or claimed to be especially devoted to doing God’s work, remained. As a result, the proportion of female students increased to the extent that they were no longer a marginal presence, living in out-of-town poor colleges where the food and the wine cellar had never been up to much. But the women's colleges were probably more meritocratic than the men's - where birth and private school attended counted for more - with Somerville possibly the most meritocratic and Lady Margaret Hall the least among the women's colleges. But I don't have data and I don't know if they exist, though schools attended are probably reconstructible for many cohorts from even the distant past.

The war time female students got better tuition than normal since there were underemployed college tutors all over Oxford.  Lipscomb documents their access to well-above-average tutors, notably Donald MacKinnon. He was a talented and charismatic figure and female students who had the hots for him could and did disguise their infatuation as enthusiasm to join him in a religious Quest.  Much more exciting than having an affair with a married man. (Lipscomb documents it in the case of Iris Murdoch but is less cynical about it all than MacKinnon’s wife was, or I am).

It’s because they are all dead that Lipscomb can write about such things and include the scurrilous anecdotes, notably those which feature the eccentric Miss Anscombe, mother of seven children by her husband, Peter Geach. Anscombe and Geach were Roman Catholic converts of the More Papist than the Pope kind - some of it really quite inhuman. The message got through to their children, at least according to the one anecdote I recall from my time in Oxford (oh, it’s apocryphal and false, of course, of course): A new babysitter had gone to the house one evening to look after the children; left alone with her, they lined up to declare: You can’t tell us what to do. We are the Anscombe - Geach children.

Pulling rank was not the preserve of children and it did happen too among marginalised female philosophers. But the men were clearly worse and Lipscomb shows the Great Men of the time behaving badly, though not necessarily atrociously so and not always without provocation: J L Austin, A J Ayer, R M Hare, Gilbert Ryle …. The way I look at it some of these figures, both male and female, were indeed  important cultural figures whose work has been influential and will continue to be read in different cultures. Austin and his colleague H P Grice (who doesn’t figure in Lipscomb’s narrative) were the inspiration for a whole new world-wide scientific approach to language, language pragmatics, and are read as such now. So their work eclipses their time, their personal weaknesses, and their eccentricities.

But some of them were simply big fish in a pond smaller than they imagined. Oxford in the past was  a small university, reflecting the fact that only a very small fraction of each age group in Great Britain proceeded to university education, maybe 3 to 5% - it was 5% as late as the early 1960s as far as I can establish. In the sciences both Cambridge and Oxford were world leaders from early in the twentieth century. But in the Humanities the stand-out figures are few, the most obvious being Wittgenstein who though eventually a Cambridge professor was an institutionally marginal figure. Anscombe  succeeded to the same university chair and kept up the tradition of personal eccentricity and obnoxiousness. But though a significant figure in twentieth century British philosophy with three volumes of Collected Papers published in the 1980s, is she more than that? And as a Roman Catholic thinker?




Friday 4 February 2022

Review: Jean Rhys Good Morning, Midnight


I think of Jean Rhys as an Expressionist writer whose short sentences are like bold brushstrokes in startling, unpredictable colours. It’s the kind of writing facilitated by having a bottle of wine or whisky or both beside you, and provides fresh supporting evidence for the old claim that in vino veritas.

In her writing, Rhys has to get past both internal inhibition and external censorship. In real life, she does things like taking money for sex which place her outside polite society  and into the demi-monde and she takes as husbands and lovers men who are accidental or professional criminals -  criminal enough to go to jail.

The alcohol helps her evade inhibition but the external censorship is evaded by literary crafting of a character sometimes described as obsessive. Whether the crafting was done drunk or sober I don’t know; either way, Rhys is a great stylist.

Good Morning, Midnight published in 1939 and set mostly in Paris of the period contains significant material written in French, not just in passages of spoken dialogue but in narratorial sentences written in a mix of English and French. Sometimes the French is left untranslated even (and especially) when the words are not ones which would have been learnt at school, like maquereau [pimp] at page 72. It’s not glossed though the context at least half-way enables a guess as to its meaning, “What she wants is three hundred francs to give to her maquereau. Will I give her three hundred francs for her maquereau?” Sometimes it is glossed but with a delay.

In one long passage which extends over pages 42 - 53 and is then picked up again at page 149, much is made of a contrast in register which could not in 1939 have been clarified with accurate English translations; the censor would have intervened.

Thus, a tall English girl who “speaks French very well” (page 38) looks at the narrator sitting in a cafĂ© and exclaims, “Et qu’est-ce qu’elle fout ici, maintenant?” (page 39). The dictionaries, even supposedly modern ones,  are coy but this could be translated as, “What the fuck is she doing here, now?”, the fout being in the same register  as that in the common expression, Foutez-nous la paix! [Fuck off and leave us alone!]. Things change over time, and in the 1930s, maybe less forceful translations would be in order: What the hell is she doing …? Piss off.../Clear off … Rhys does not translate but instead writes, half a page later, “But what language! Considering the general get-up what you should have said was, ‘Qu’est-ce qu’elle fiche ici?’ Considering the general get-up, surely that’s what you should have said. What language, what language! What would Debenham & Freebody say, and what Harvey Nichols?” [These are the names of middle-class/upper middle-class London department stores where most of the shoppers would have been female].

But nothing has been translated at this point; the reader may be able to work out that ficher is less coarse / vulgar/ offensive than fouter but even though “Qu’est-ce qu’ elle fiche ici?” could have been glossed as, say, “What on earth is she doing here?” without troubling the censor, it has not been done.

The narrator returns to the language issue at page 41 when she speculates that the girl said fout,  “partly because she didn’t like the look of me and partly because she wanted to show how well she spoke French and partly because….” But though no translation has yet been provided, the narrator then pulls herself up for her obsessional behaviour, “…why get in a state about it? (page 41).

But the theme is continued at page 42, where she adds an implied thought to the original and at last provides a translation, but a censored one:

“Qu’est-ce qu’elle fout ici, la vieille? What the devil (translating it politely) is she doing here, that old woman? …. I quite agree….I am asking myself all the time what the devil I am doing here”

That’s at top of page 42; bottom of page 43 the theme is again reprised:

“Now it’s getting dark. Now the gates are shutting. (Qu’est-ce qu’elle fout ici, la vieille?)”

The play with language then shifts at pages 44 -47 to simple repetitions in the key of Shakespeare. She starts with a half-allusion (“tomorrow, tomorrow…”) and then runs through “Back, back, back…”, “Hours and hours and hours”, “Courage, courage”, “Jesus, Jesus….Mother, Mother”, “Chloroform, chloroform”, “Back, back, back …” and several  more.

But fouter / ficher gets another outing at page 53, when a male acquaintance describes a friend he wants her to meet and sums up in untranslated French, “Mais au fond, vous savez, il s’en fiche de tout, il s’en fiche de tout le monde”. And the narrator then takes one line to comment, “He sounds fine” which in the context of all that has gone before ought to raise a smile.

 At page 149 (the novel is 157 pages in my edition) we get one last throw of the dice:

“The damned room, grinning at me. The clock ticking. Qu’est-ce qu’elle fout ici, la vieille?”

Microsoft has had a field day with green and red squiggles all over this. I guess it struggles with many novelists. They do things differently.