Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Ottawa Roundtable Discussion

William Morris’s radical politics are traditionally tied to his activist phase of 1883-1890. But was ‘militancy’ the exclusive measure of his revolutionary praxis? To Build a Shadowy Isle of Bliss: William Morris’s Radicalism and the Embodiment of Dreams, co-edited by Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015) argues that the power of Morris’s radicalism can be discerned within, not in spite of, his aesthetic creations, and that his most compelling political ideas bloomed wherever his dexterous hand had been at work – in artefacts as in fiction. With this central premise, the book complicates received notions of the radical, the aesthetic, and the political, encouraging the reader to appreciate the unorthodox character of Morris’s philosophy of social change.

In an effort to disseminate these ideas within the academy, Michelle Weinroth and Paul Leduc Browne organized a roundtable on the book for the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences – a pan-Canadian event, which typically gathers about 10,000 conferees. The roundtable took place on 4 June 2015, at the University of Ottawa, under the auspices of the Society for Socialist Studies. The speakers included the co-editors and four critics: Matthew Beaumont of University College London, Jason Camlot of Concordia University (Montreal), Nicholas Frankel of Virginia Commonwealth University (Virginia, USA), and Douglas Moggach of the University of Ottawa. Each of these critics received the book enthusiastically and offered an intellectually engaging response to the volume’s treatment of Morris’s radicalism.

In an opening address, Michelle Weinroth explicated the politics behind the book’s cover illustration, arguing that Morris’s radicalism is at its most ‘radical’ where it is most often devalued: in the ornamental and in the oneiric. Nicholas Frankel followed with a critical synthesis of the book’s three core concepts – Morris’s radicalism, the idea of ‘embodiment’, and dreams. Drawing on Morris’s legacy, Jason Camlot reflected on education in the context of ‘The New Division of (Academic) Labour’. Matthew Beaumont then elaborated on Morris’s politics in the light of nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century debates about the idea of communism. Finally, Douglas Moggach expounded on Morris’s utopianism as a specific version of an ethical programme of post-Kantian perfectionism. In his closing remarks, Paul Leduc Browne emphasized the importance of reading Morris in and for himself. Such an approach, he suggested, illuminates most sharply the modernity and genuinely original character of Morris’s radical thought.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tests in Utopia

It sometimes seems that in utopias of an ecological persuasion the author feels obliged to reintroduce into his or her genially pastoral world elements of stress, challenge and competition that had once been afforded, in the bad old pre-utopian days, by a capitalist economy and its intolerable pressures. Thus it is that in Aldous Huxley’s Island (1962) the young people of Pala collectively engage in dangerous feats of mountaineering which occasionally result in fatalities, but these are regarded as a price worth paying for a social ritual that inculcates independence and a sense of the sublime in the young.

In Ernest Callenbach’s still impressive Ecotopia (1975), which first gave that new utopian sub-genre its name, we have the famous or infamous ‘war-games’, in which the young men of the utopian society daub themselves in war-paint, quaff intoxicating beverages and fight with spears to establish the supremacy of their particular team; Ecotopia’s young women then give their favours lavishly to the victors. Again, there are injuries and even occasional fatalities (with the narrator William Weston himself getting nastily injured as he participates in the ritual), but these, as in Huxley, are seen as a price well worth paying.

Is it a weakness of Morris’s own utopian realm Nowhere that it does not contain such tests and challenges for the young, that it has not replaced capitalist competition with new utopian forms thereof – unless you include camping out in Kensington forest in the summer months under that category? Could we imagine more challenging Nowherian rituals in the Thames valley that could substitute for Huxleyan mountaineering or Callenbachian war-games? We might have to import elements from the harsher and more adventurous fictional worlds of Morris’s late romances in order to do so. But without such tests or rituals News from Nowhere runs the risk – as many critics have thought – of seeming too arcadian and undemanding. So instead of simply being a surly Old Grumbler who passively bemoans that fact, we need to be actively inventing remedies for it.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Footnoting Utopia

In the early pages of News from Nowhere, Annie leaves William Guest, Dick Hammond and Bob the weaver to get on with her own work: ‘She waved a hand to us, and stepped lightly down the hall, taking (as Scott says) at least part of the sun from our table as she went’ (ch. III). Of the four modern editions of Morris’s utopia I have sitting beside me on the desk, only one bothers to footnote this Walter Scott reference. James Redmond’s 1970 Routledge & Kegan Paul edition does not; nor does Krishan Kumar’s 1990 Cambridge University Press version ; nor again Stephen Arata’s 2003 Broadview Press effort. Only David Leopold’s 2003 Oxford World’s Classics News from Nowhere informs us, in its 120-word endnote on p.187, that 1. Scott was a major Scottish author, above all of historical novels; 2. that Morris was passionately devoted to his works; and 3. that this particular allusion probably comes from Redgauntlet (1824), when Alan Fairford laments Greenmantle’s sudden disappearance.

All four of these editions are aimed at student or general readers of Morris, so does it matter that three of them do not footnote the Scott reference in the text? Could James Redmond have assumed, in the more literate 1970s, that people would very readily know who Walter Scott was, and perhaps even which particular Waverley novel the image of the sun going out comes from, in a way that in the social-media-dominated world of the present we almost certainly cannot any longer. If you do choose to annotate the Scott reference (as you surely should), how much information is enough? David Leopold might, after all, have related it back to an earlier Scottish reference in News from Nowhere. For it is surely the mention of drawing salmon-nets on the river Tay in chapter II, in relation to the return of salmon to the unpolluted Thames, that cues Morris towards Redgauntlet in chapter III, since a tense dispute over Joshua Geddes’s salmon-nets on the Solway occurs early on in that novel.

Individual editors work on particular Morris works when asked to by publishers, and they make their own decisions about what to annotate and what to pass over in silence; but what we never seem to get is any general or a priori discussion about what the principles of Morrisian annotating ought to be, above all in the case of News from Nowhere, which is for so many of us the ultimate Morris text. One way of starting such a debate would be for someone to write an article comparing the merits and demerits of the existing editions, a discussion which would need to encompass the function and mutual relationships of Introduction, Notes, Bibliography, cover images and (where appropriate) material in Appendices – this latter being a category in which Arata’s Broadview tome wins out handsomely.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Raymond Williams Now

How heartening yesterday's well-attended 'Raymond Williams Now' conference in Manchester was, despite our dark Cameronian political climate! How much younger many of its speakers and audience were than those you'd find at your average William Morris Society meeting; and why should that be? For a couple of decades now, what I suppose we must call 'Raymond Williams studies' has been hampered by an essentially retrospective and even at times hagiographical approach; but after yesterday I have a sense that a younger generation, who did not personally know Williams and to whom he is not therefore a unreproachable Saint of the Left, are enthusiastically picking up his work as a rich resource and getting on with whatever political or cultural task they are currently about with some of the tools he has left us – a more modest but also more wholesome approach to a great precursor.

Highlights for me from the event were Tony Crowley's opening plenary lecture on 'Keywords Then and Now’ and Ruth Beale’s 25-minute film ‘Performing Keywords’. Crowley gave a masterly exposition of how Williams’s thinking on language relates to a wider socialist tradition of linguistic thought, and ended with some astute reflections on contemporary ‘words that interpellate us’: chav, scouse, radical, and dissident among them. A member of the audience wanted to add ‘aspirational’ to the list, it being a word we are already hearing so much of in the Labour Party leadership contest and elsewhere.

Ruth Beale’s remarkable performance project combined elements of dance and stylised collective movement, the fragmentation of Williams’s keywords into what felt like Dada nonsense syllables (COM-MUNI-CATI-ON), recordings from adult education workshops on key terms, and live readings by local people in a variety of regional and social accents from Williams’s Introduction to Keywords. Williams was, after all, Professor of Drama at Cambridge, so dramatising his theoretical work in this way is both enterprising and entirely apt, and I would certainly like to see more experiments in this direction (and with Morris’s work too).

‘Keywords’ is also the name of the Raymond Williams Society journal and of an important website hosted by the University of Pittsburgh (keywords.pitt.edu/). It is such a crucial term precisely because it defines a project rather than a hagiography, a task we will always urgently need to get on with in our own times using (but also moving beyond, when we need to) the initial discoveries that Williams gave us in his 1976 book on the subject. When the work of a thinker on the Left can be defined as a project in this way, then it can be taken positively forward; it is open to the young (as we saw in Manchester yesterday) in new ways, in novel political and cultural circumstances. Whether we can construe William Morris’s work in this manner, so that it is subject to forward-looking rather than exclusively historicist approaches, well, that seems to me still a very open question.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Elections and Utopia

A little piece in The Guardian Review on 9 May about the reading habits of the leaders of the political parties can form a pendant to my previous post on the general election itself. You might expect the Green's former leader, Caroline Lucas, to be the most interesting figure here, since she studied English Literature at Exeter University and has a PhD for a feminist account of Elizabethan romance. I once asked Caroline, in the Kelmscott Coach House, whether she felt there were connections between her early Eng Lit studies and her later Green convictions, and rather to my surprise she didn’t have a very ready or clear answer on this. I know what the answer is in my own case – romantic anti-capitalism is the common term – but whether that would work for her I'm not sure.

So the clear winner, from this blog’s perspective, is Leanne Wood, leader of Plaid Cymru, who ‘says she was inspired by Marge Piercy’s feminist sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), in which the heroine – a woman detained and drugged in a New York psychiatric hospital – is visited by a time-traveller from a utopian future world, but fears what could unfold instead is a dystopia where systematic use of mind-control secures the elite’s power’ (p.5). That latter formulation is quite a good account of what we have just witnessed, with those relentless Tory invocations of the Labour-SNP ‘nightmare’ securing our elite's power, so it is good to know that at least one party leader also harbours Piercyian aspirations towards utopia in these dark moments. Perhaps we can persuade her to read News from Nowhere next.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Democracy at Work

‘There is something in all this very like democracy’, William Guest eagerly declares to old Hammond as the latter explains the principles of communal decision-making in News from Nowhere (ch.XIV). And we too, at the end of this six-week campaign period, may feel that we are exercising our own democratic rights in putting crosses on ballot papers at some point in the course of the day.

However, today’s general election is a farce, from various viewpoints. First, because its only outcome will be further neo-liberalism – the hard, nasty version under Cameron’s Tories, or the with-a-human-face-and-ever-so-regretfully-but neo-liberalism-all-the-same variant from Miliband and Labour. Second, because it is operating under a corrupt first-past-the-post system which, by design, reduces all non-establishment challengers to near-impotence. Third, and most importantly, because putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years has almost nothing to do with democracy where and how it would really count – in the work-place, where most of us actually spend most of our waking hours.

If my academic colleagues and I had daily votes on the variety of issues which face an early twenty-first-century university, or if the workers at the Magnet kitchen showroom just down the road from me all decided collectively in committee how their business would be conducted, and so on, then I might believe that the term democracy had some meaning again in this society. We used to talk about this issue, about extending formal bourgeois democracy to substantive ‘industrial democracy’ – that would indeed have been part of what Raymond Williams used to mean by his ‘long revolution’. But that discourse seems to have faded away almost entirely in the neo-liberal epoch.

Until we get it back on the agenda, I am going to take comedian Russell Brand’s original advice – which was also, by the way, that of William Morris’s Socialist League in its own day – and NOT vote. By that ‘policy of abstention’ (to borrow Morris’s term) I shall, in my tiny way, avoid giving a corrupt and pointless rigamarole the show of legitimacy it craves from its victims.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Scott’s 'Waverley' and the Joys of Insurrection

‘They besieged and took Carlisle, and soon afterwards prosecuted their daring march to the southward’. I don’t suppose that Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish National Party, however well they do in the imminent General Election, are planning a daring expedition into England of the kind narrated in Walter Scott’s 1814 novel Waverley, from which my quotation comes (vol. 3 chapter 10). But none the less, with so much reactionary drivel being spouted by the Tories about the supposed ‘threat’ that a post-election SNP-Labour Party deal might pose, this is certainly a topical and exciting moment to be re-reading Scott’s first novel.

I can see more clearly too, now, why Scott’s Waverley novels appealed so intensely to William Morris – not just because of the rugged Highland scenery, picturesque social customs and racy linguistic dialect they depict, but rather because of the sheer energy and intelligence of their engagement with politics and history. Waverley vividly dramatises a country in civil war as the 1745 Jacobite rebellion breaks out, as does Morris’s own News from Nowhere at the other end of the nineteenth century, with its gripping chapters on ‘How the Change Came’. The invocation by Scott’s Flora and Fergus MacIvor of ‘the cause’ must have deeply stirred Morris, even though his own chosen cause was socialist rather than royalist; as must the book’s searching explorations of how political loyalties are formed in the first place (Waverley himself famously ‘wavers’ from side to side), how far ethical considerations should or should not be subordinated to one’s chosen political commitment, and where fanaticism might be considered as beginning. I suspect too that, in the narrower sphere of literary characterisation, some of Flora MacIvor’s highminded militancy feeds through into Ellen in News from Nowhere.

Scott’s novels do not currently feature on our Romanticism course in the Lancaster University English Department, and that seems a real loss. At a time when Russian-backed separatists are fighting for independence in eastern Ukraine, and the jihadis of Islamic State are violently imposing their caliphate in Syria and Iraq, we can surely see more clearly that the historical novel as invented by Scott was an epoch-making generic innovation that rises to the level of such brutal transformative processes. It still has much to tell us about them, and about the process of building more humane revolutionary transformations too.