Monday 27 February 2012

Roland Barthes on Nowhere

As soon as you reach the main section of Roland Barthes’s autobiographical text Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, you read this: ‘Dans ce qu’il écrit, il y a deux textes. Le texte I est réactif, mû par des indignations, des peurs, des ripostes intérieures, de petites paranoïas, des défenses, des scènes. Le texte II est actif, mû par le plaisir’ (p.49).

I’ve always felt that this would be an excellent framework for approaching News from Nowhere. ‘Texte I’ would be the London material: Guest’s awakening in 22nd-century Hammersmith, his tour across the city with Dick, his session with old Hammond. All this is ‘réactif’ in relation to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, moved by indignation at the American’s centralised, high-tech vision of socialism and by ‘peur’ that Bellamy’s new Boston might become widely accepted as what late nineteenth-century socialism was aiming at.

‘Texte II’ is then the Ellen material – or what I would prefer to call, in a more aptly Barthesian phrase, the Ellen-effect - as Guest heads up the river Thames. Now Morris’s text is ‘actif’, no longer dependent (by contestation) on Bellamy, ‘mû par le plaisir’ not only of the upper river and its flora and fauna, but of Ellen as a new kind of utopian, perhaps even as a new principle of utopian narrativity itself.

There is a good deal of thinking about utopia in the copious oeuvre of Roland Barthes, and it’s surely time someone tried a sustained encounter between his work and Morris’s utopia. I offer it as a hypothesis, for example, borrowing the terms of Barthes’s narratological masterwork S/Z, that Morris’s London is ‘lisible’, but that Ellen is ‘scriptible’.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Joy of Anagrams

Anagrams have been something of a minor leitmotif in twentieth-century literary theory. Saussurean linguistics may have been formative for mainstream structuralism, but it was Saussure’s later, unpublished work devoted to proving that Latin poets deliberately concealed anagrams of proper names in their verses that appealed to theorists of a more post-structural bent. And Walter Benjamin’s friend Gerschom Scholem has informed us that the German Marxist theorist’s ‘taste for anagrams accompanied him through his whole life. It was one of his main pleasures to make up anagrams. In several of his essays he used the anagram Anni M. Bie instead of the name Benjamin’.

So I am very struck by a peculiar formulation in Morris’s poem ‘King Arthur’s Tomb’. Riding towards Glastonbury, Launcelot refers to his beloved Guenevere as ‘her whose name-letters make me leap’ (l.72). Name-letters? Has he then been passing the dreary hours on horseback by concocting anagrams of her name, ‘leaping’ excitedly whenever he comes up with one; and if so, what possibilities are there here? I’ve come up with the three-word phrase ‘gun ere eve’, which is thoroughly anachronistic in the Arthurian world of Morris’s early poems; but there could also be a character called Rev. E.E. Nuge. Or should we be thinking of ‘Queen Guenevere’ to extend the linguistic opportunities here?

And could we then perhaps apply an anagrammatic hermeneutic more widely to Morris’s poetry, looking, in a Saussurean spirit, for anagrams of his own name or those of his Oxford friends scattered across the texts of these early works?

Wednesday 1 February 2012

The Digital Imagination

I’ve been aware that the Morris Society needs to think through the relation of its various media to each other: not just that between its well-established Journal and Newsletter, but, in our digital age, the relation of Journal to Newsletter to website to blog to Twitter to Facebook. But suddenly that initial awareness has cut rather deeper. For this is not after all just a pragmatic matter of communicational efficiency between a Society and its members or the wider world, but rather a much deeper theoretical and political issue: how do Morrisian values and practices survive, mutate, hopefully even thrive in the digital epoch?

The Crafts Council is leading the way here, with its touring exhibition on ‘Lab Craft: Digital Adventures in Contemporary Crafts’ late last year. But we will want to take the issue into other Morris-related fields too. What will be the fate of the book in an epoch of web publishing? Will the book as we know it go the way of the dinosaurs, or may this, in an unexpected dialectical reversal, be a chance for the Morrisian ‘book beautiful’ to reassert itself as electronic publishing deals with our more utilitarian reading? Even more crucially, what is the relation between the new digital media and social unrest or political activism? How crucial were blogs, tweets and Facebook to both the English riots and the Arab Spring of 2011? Are they bringing utopia closer to us, or pushing it further away?

Rich material here, surely, for a series of linked lectures in the Kelmscott Coach House by contemporary practitioners and theorists; and someone, ultimately, should write a good book on the subject. Martin Crick has just given us an admirable history of the Morris Society from 1955 to 2005, and we must now think through the shape of its next fifty years, of which digitality will certainly be one of the leading elements.