Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Radio 4 updates Utopia

BBC Radio 4 is offering us a very clever reworking of News from Nowhere by Sarah Woods in its current ‘Dangerous Visions’ series. It starts today rather than in the 1890s, and the activist Will Guest time-travels 100 years forward into a transformed future. Once there he is taken to Old Hammond in the British Museum to learn about the transformation, and what feels initially like an attempt to resolve utopia’s perennial problem of boring sociological exposition – throwing a few industrial sound-effects into the conversation – suddenly reveals its deeper political purpose, as the great crash of 2008 becomes the turning point in capitalism’s fortunes, and a whole series of despicable austerity apologists like Gordon Brown, Ed Balls, George Osborne and David Cameron make themselves heard too.  A huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square after a second economic collapse leads to a military massacre which, as in Morris, kickstarts revolution.

What is missing then, however, is precisely the bloody and extended civil war as News from Nowhere so vividly gives it to us.  Instead, we get some rather vague talk of impersonal social and cultural forces – information-technology, collaborative working, ‘kindness’ – which seem to have enabled general change.  In this respect, the Radio 4 version ultimately resembles Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward rather than Morris’s grimmer and surely more realistic vision of diehard ruling-class resistance to popular uprising.  And it’s worth noting, too, as a sign of our political times, that the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’, used so often in Morris, have been altogether erased from Sarah Woods' utopia.

Curious things have been done with the women in the text too.  Morris’s Annie and Ellen have been condensed into a single figure who jumps naked with Guest into the Thames early on in the production.  So this Ellen turns out to be 42 (Annie’s age) rather than 20 as in Morris, and Guest here announces himself to be 46 rather than 56 as in the original.  So the huge age difference which meant that the Guest-Ellen relationship could never go anywhere in the first place is ironed out into something rather more conventional, as is the Radio 4 Ellen herself compared to the more enigmatic and troubling figure she is in Morris.  But at least the dramatisation ends with Guest’s painful return to his own political moment and struggle, rather than with the anodyne marrying into the future which Edward Bellamy gives us.

I guess that no fan of Morris’s great work is ever going to be fully satisfied with any later reworking of it.  But I must say, despite my cavils above, that this Sarah Wood version is vigorous and ingenious and, in terms of our own political struggles, inspiring too.  Do listen to it while you still can at:

Friday, 20 May 2016

Roberto Esposito and Biopolitics

I’m glad I attended Roberto Esposito’s lecture yesterday afternoon – always good to see a leading European philosopher and political thinker on one’s home turf!  A slight, mild-mannered man with a heavily accented ‘Neapolitan English’ (to use his own term), he spoke calmly and compellingly for an hour on the concept of ‘personhood’.  I felt that I’d had an impressive tour of much European intellectual history, from Roman law through medieval Christian thinking to the liberal tradition from Locke to Mill, but there was something slightly dry and detached about this too.

More invigorating had been my own preparatory reading for this event, particularly a fine interview which Esposito gave to the journal Diacritics back in 2006.  Focusing on the issue of biopolitics rather than personhood, he there sets out the intellectual possibilities within this paradigm as he sees them: ‘Where Agamben accentuates the negative, even tragic tonality of the biopolitical phenomenon in a strongly dehistoricising modality – one that pays tribute to Heidegger, Schmidt, and Benjamin – Negri, on the contrary, insists on the productive, expansive, or more precisely vital element of the biopolitical dynamic.  The reference is explicitly to that line that joins Spinoza to Marx to Deleuze.  Indeed, Negri imagines that biopolitics can contribute to the reconstruction of a revolutionary horizon in the heart of empire’ (vol 36:2, summer 2006, p.50).

At that last claim, Morrisians should sharply sit up, of course.  If, for us, Morris is a Communist utopianist who aims to overthrow capitalism, then we shall want and need to educate ourselves about all the thinkers and terms floated by Esposito in the interview I have briefly cited.  Indeed, these may prove to be what Morris studies in the twenty-first century is all about.  Of course, we shall hope that, in his utopian refashioning of Marxist thought in his own time, Morris has anticipated some of these issues, but we shall accept, too, that we ourselves will have to refashion Morris in their light, perhaps very radically so.  So I here commit myself to looking further into Roberto Esposito’s work and reporting back in due course.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Morris and Philology

Working my way through Jack Lindsay’s still impressive Morris biography, I stop with a Wordsworthian ‘gentle shock of mild surprise’ on page 235, where we read that ‘this year [1879] he was also one of the scholars who met regularly at the Philological Society’.  Did he indeed?  I don’t remember that detail in Mackail or MacCarthy or Nick Salmon’s Morris Chronology or Norman Kelvin’s edition of the Collected Letters.  Lindsay’s source for his claim is Alois Brandl’s statement in 1911 that ‘when I first made [F.S.] Furnivall’s acquaintance, he was one of a circle of scholars who regularly met at the Philological Society: Ellis, Morris, Murray, Sweet’ (p.10).

It would after all make good sense if Morris did attend the Philological Society’s meetings.  There was an early plan to review R.C. Trench’s History of English Words for the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine.  Morris praised ‘the great philologers of the eighteenth century’ in his lecture on ‘The Gothic Revival’, pronounced that ‘philology can be taught, but “English Literature” cannot’ in a letter of November 1886, and demonstrated in his late romances a highly developed sense of linguistic history and experiment (to the point, indeed, where one feels he is close to developing a private literary code or idolect along the lines of later modernist writers).

We have had excellent studies by Dennis Taylor and Cary Plotkin of Victorian philology in relation to the poetic idioms of Thomas Hardy and Gerard Manley Hopkins.  High time we had the fullscale tome we so certainly need on philology and Morris.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Morning Star at 50

In his excellent 1991 article on News from Nowhere, Patrick Parrinder reminded us that ‘Morris (among his multifarious activities) was a newspaperman’, and he was, more specifically, a socialist newspaperman; so I think that he would have been as impressed as we should be that tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the Morning Star newspaper.  To keep a daily paper ‘For Peace and Socialism’ (as its front page announces) going for half a century, particularly in the last couple of decades of neoliberalism, in which Raymond Williams’s ‘long revolution’ has been so thoroughly rolled back, is a major feat indeed.

The Morning Star began as The Daily Worker in January 1930, when it was the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  Just how Stalinist it was in those days is indicated by the fact that when in August 1940 it reported Trotsky’s assassination it did so under the headline: ‘A Counter Revolutionary Gangster Passes’.  My paternal grandfather Henry Pinkney, as a CPGB member, must have been reading the paper in those years, and I know that he used to sell it outside the gates of Betteshanger Colliery after he retired as a miner in 1959.  What he made of its metamorphosis into the Morning Star in April 1966, I do not know.

There are always questions to be asked about the political orientations of Left newspapers – including Morris’s own Commonweal.  Often, I find, today’s Morning Star doesn’t seem to be able to think much further Left than Jeremy Corbyn.  But it is always packed with crucial industrial, trade union, campaigning and international news than you won’t find in the mainstream press and media, and for a relatively thin newspaper (16 pages on weekdays) its cultural coverage is good too.  So we must be grateful for what we’ve got.  Let’s admire the political dedication that has kept the title in being for fifty years, and wish it another half century on behalf of Peace and Socialism too.  Whenever and wherever you see the Morning Star, do buy it – it needs and deserves our support.

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Ellen's Basket

In his 1976 essay on ‘The Revision of News from Nowhere’ across its different textual manifestations, J. Alex Macdonald offers us a tiny but intriguing revisionary detail.  In the 1890 Commonweal version of the early morning meadow at Runnymede, Ellen does not have a basket; in the 1891 Reeves and Turner book version, she suddenly does: ‘that was Ellen, holding a basket in her hand’ (ch.XXIII).  Why, then, does Morris add a basket to this character and, more intriguingly, what might be in it? 

Baskets and the mystery of what they may contain are indeed something of a minor motif in the revisions of News from Nowhere; for in the road-mending episode (also not in the Commonweal version), William Guest spots ‘a good big basket that had hints about it of cold pie and wine’ (ch.VII).  Macdonald’s own explanation of Ellen’s new basket is modest enough: ‘the addition of it is a small touch which brings Ellen more clearly into view.  Among utopian novels News from Nowhere is almost unique in its loving attention to detail, especially of landscape and architecture’ (12). 

Fair enough; but then, almost any other daily object might have served the same purpose.  The interesting thing about baskets, surely, is that they contain things, and not only cold pies.  To my mind, the most striking fact we learn about Ellen in the course of the book is that she has been a pupil of old Hammond’s; so I am going to wager that her new basket is full of the sage of Bloomsbury’s writings about the history – and even perhaps the future - of Nowhere which she has taken out into the fields for a spot of plein air study before the rest of the Runnymede household wakes up.