Saturday, 14 April 2012
William Morris in China
Well, actually, not in China but Manchester; but there were so many Chinese academics over here for the ‘Marxist Aesthetics’ event at Manchester University this week that I really did feel as if I were in Shanghai for a couple of days. It proved invigorating indeed to be at a symposium where Marxism provided the basic terms of debate: Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts and Herbert Marcuse were particularly prominent, but Raymond Williams, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno and others featured too.
I was lucky enough to have two bites at the conference apple, first by introducing Morris’s 1880 ‘The Beauty of Life’ lecture, which seemed to chime in well with the Chinese delegates’ emphasis on the ‘laws of beauty’ from Marx’s Paris Manuscripts; but also by speaking on ‘Morris, Jameson, Utopia’, in which I tried systematically to apply Fredric Jameson’s thinking on utopia to News from Nowhere. I found myself – and perhaps Morris too – to be ambivalent about the term ‘beauty’. On the one hand, it is for him a crucial aesthetic critique of capitalist ugliness and philistinism; but on the other hand, it seems often to frustrate Morris, who aims to break beyond it towards the ‘sublime’ (Iceland, revolution, Ellen in his utopia).
Beyond all our local conceptual debates at the Manchester event was the formidable presence of China itself as a twenty-first-century geopolitical entity. I have written enthusiastically in this blog about Badiou and Žižek on ‘the idea of Communism’ (22 March 2009), but here, suddenly, we were in the presence of many genial academic representatives of the world’s most powerful Communist state, although, given the recent marketisation of its economy, a Marxist understanding of China would now be a very complex thing indeed. So I hope to get out there myself later this year and do my own modest bit to test out Chinese social reality against Morrisian criteria. Watch this space.