Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Surprises on a Utopias Half Unit

There is always something striking and unpredictable about teaching an undergraduate utopias course.  What has astonished me over the last couple of years is that students have enjoyed Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which I’ve always found a grindingly dull read because of its placid, gentlemanly and systematic social exposition; and they have been deeply troubled by Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975), which I had assumed that they would find exhilaratingly disorientating in contrast.  Disorientated, yes; but exhilarated, certainly not!  One member of last year’s seminar even admitted that he’d been reduced to consulting the Wikipedia plot summary for the novel. 

So I suppose we need some aspects of Tom Moylan’s definition of a ‘critical utopia’ in place before I send my trusty band of readers to wrestle with Russ this year.  There are three key dimensions here, it seems to me.  First, far from a visitor from the bad old world visiting utopia, we have a visitor from utopia, Janet Evason of Whileaway, visiting the bad old contemporary world, i.e., the traffic runs the other way round.   We therefore learn much more about the bad old world than we do in the classical utopias, and the visitor has some sort of politico-narrative mission there.  In fact, in The Female Man, there are actually two contemporary realities – one being the author’s own, the ‘Joanna-reality’, the other a slightly dystopianised present belonging to Jeannine Dadier.  The third aspect of Moylan’s definition is that critical utopias are unusually formally self-conscious, hence disorientating; I don’t suppose anyone will disagree that that’s the case with Russ’s book.

There is, however, one final narrative and political twist in The Female Man which Moylan’s generic concept does not allow for; and this is the fact that Janet Evason’s mission to the present, and indeed Whileaway itself, are both disturbingly undercut by what we might term the ‘Jael-reality’ of the text.  I don’t want to say too much about that – after all, some readerly surprises should be left somewhere in this weird and wonderful book.  May this year’s group do better with it than last year’s!

Monday, 18 February 2019

Splitting the Labour Party

William Morris was no stranger to the splitting of political parties, having broken away from the Social-Democratic Federation to found the Socialist League in late 1884.  But unlike the seven Labour MPs who have split from their party this morning, he was in the majority rather than a minority (which suggests that his decision was a mistake in the first place) and, crucially, he split to the Left, not like Chuka Umunna and colleagues to the Right.

There is always something utopianly appealing about the push towards a new centrist politics, whether with the ‘gang of four’ leaving Labour in 1981 or Emmanuel Macron in France much more recently.  Who could be immune to the rhetorical appeal of “leaving the old tired, tribal politics behind for a fresh start”?  Except, of course, that you never actually do get such a pure, disinterested new politics emerging.  To stick to the two English examples for the moment, the objective function of such splits from Labour (whatever the subjective intentions of their originators) is to secure Tory rule, to destroy a genuine challenge from the Left to capitalist hegemony.  And we have seen with Macron that the rhetoric of transcending the old politics just leads, inevitably, to ruthless neo-liberal policies against which, as I noted in an earlier blog post, the gilets jaunes are now welcomely rebelling.

Whether Luciana Berger, Umunna and friends can do as much damage to Corbyn’s Labour as the gang of four did to the Party in the early 1980s, we shall have to see.  We know in advance that they will get massive publicity from the British media of nearly every political stripe; they have the powerful rhetorical weapon of ‘anti-semitism’ at their disposal, and Labour is itself deeply divided over Brexit issues. So Project Corbyn remains as menaced today as it has been from the very day of his leadership victory, and needs every ounce of effort and support we Morrisians can give it.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

High Steet, Oxford

In A Dream of John Ball Will Green asks the time-travelling narrator, ‘Hast thou seen Oxford, scholar?’, at which ‘A vision of grey-roofed houses and a long winding street and the sound of many bells came over me’.  That long street is Oxford’s High Street – or the High, in the old discredited class-argot of the university – winding its way from Magdalen College in the east to Carfax in the west.  Nikolaus Pevsner once described it as ‘one of the world’s greatest streets’, and a favourite Oxonian pastime has been to locate the precise spot at which the long gracious curve of the road and its buildings can be seen to best advantage. 

Thomas Hardy played this little game in June 1923 – his local guide on that occasion being the Queen’s College Fellow in History Godfrey Elton, who notes in his 1938 autobiography Among Others that, after touring Hardy around Queen’s itself, ‘Next day … I was escorting him to look for the exact point from which the curve of the High looks loveliest’; alas, he does not reveal the precise point of vantage they chose on that occasion.  So it now in retrospect strikes me as slightly odd that, when working on my book on William Morris in Oxford (2007), I did not seem to come across any references to Morris and his friends indulging in this local practice, either in their undergraduate days – of which there are so many colourful anecdotes - or after.  Or did I just somehow carelessly miss them, I wonder?