Wednesday, April 29, 2015

2 + 2 = 5: the politics of number in writing about the Soviet Union

My article about numbers, arithmetic, mathematics and Communism has been published by Textual Practice. Here's the abstract:
Why did British writers, when they wrote about the Soviet Union, often deploy the imagery of numbers, arithmetic and mathematics? This paper scrutinises a number of such instances, including Orwell's famous use of the equation ‘2 + 2 = 5’ in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Koestler's fascination with Euclid's proof of the infinitude of prime numbers in The Invisible Writing. These are put into relation with less celebrated works where questions of number or of mathematical reasoning are politicised by being applied to the Soviet Union. The paper situates these literary representations in relation to three key debates that intersected in interesting ways. Firstly, a debate about utilitarianism's attempt to quantify social goods and the Romantic rejection of that attempt; secondly, a debate about the philosophical foundations of mathematics (which involved Russell, Wittgenstein and Heidegger); and finally, a debate about the relation between mathematics and dialectical materialism, which involved key British and Soviet scientists and mathematicians and reflected on the position of science under Communism. Taking my cue from recent calls by Alain Badiou and Steven Connor for a rapprochement between the humanities and mathematics, I argue that this was a period in which numbers and arithmetic were profoundly politicised in literature.
You can read the article here.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

New Worlds: Science Fiction and Beyond

I have been thinking a lot about science fiction lately, as I'm teaching a new third year module about it with my esteemed colleague Jake Huntley. We decided we wanted to test the boundaries of the genre so we're including some less obviously sci-fi texts alongside more generic material, and calling it 'New Worlds: Science Fiction and Beyond'. We've organised the module into four 'blocks', on time travel, scale, insects, and cities, and we're showing related film and TV in a series of screenings that run in parallel to the seminars. This is the skeletal outline we're starting with, fleshing it out along the way. The students develop their own projects.

Week 1 – Introduction Patrick Parrinder, 'Working Daydreams, Workshop Definitions', Gwyneth Jones 'The Icons of Science Fiction', Isaac Asimov, 'Let's Get Together'
screening: The Terminator (1984)

Week 2 – Time (travel) I H.G. Wells, The Time Machine; Robert Heinlein, ‘All You Zombies’; Michael Moorcock, ‘Behold the Man’ (New Worlds version)
screening: Day of the Daleks (1972)
Week 3 – Time (travel) II Kurt Vonnegut, The Sirens of Titan, excerpt from Mark Currie, About Time, Laura Mulvey, 'Passing Time: Reflections on Cinema from a New Technological Age'
screening: La Jetée (1962)

Week 4 – Scale I Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels [extract]; H.G. Wells, Food of the Gods
screening: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Week 5 – Scale II J. G. Ballard, ‘The Enormous Space’, ‘The Last World of Mr Goddard’, ‘This Way to Innerspace’; John Wyndham, ‘Meteor’; E.H. Gombrich, 'Ambiguities of the Third Dimension' (from Art and Illusion)
screening: Home (2003) (BBC adaptation of 'The Enormous Space')
Week 6 – Reading Week

Week 7 – Becoming Animal/Becoming Insect I Franz Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’; George Langelaan, ‘The Fly’; Steven Connor 'Mutable Fly' from Fly; Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, 'Becoming Animal' from Milles Plateaux
screening: The Fly (1986)
Week 8 – Becoming Animal/Becoming Insect II Laline Paull, The Bees; Roald Dahl, ‘Royal Jelly’, Claire Preston, 'Political Bee' from Bee; Samuel Beckett, excerpt from Molloy (Moran's Bees)
screening: Alien (1979)

Week 9 – Sci Fi Cities/Architectural Space I China Mieville, The City & The City
screening: Alphaville (1965)
Week 10 – Sci Fi Cities/Architectural Space II J.G. Ballard, High Rise.
screening: Shivers (1975)

Week 11 - Project Conference
Week 12 - Project Conference

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hartog on Presentism

Following on from my previous post, I've been getting to grips with François Hartog's response to Koselleck's theorisation of the 'space of experience' and the 'horizon of expectation'. For Koselleck, modernity (starting basically with Renaissance) could be defined as the period in which a gap opens up between experience and expectation - so that the future can no longer be understood in terms of past experience, and indeed the expectation that that future will be at some fundamental level different (and better) becomes widespread. In Régimes d'historicité, Hartog labels this the modern regime of historicity, in which historical time is understood as progress towards a future. He recently and concisely explained it in ‘The Modern Régime of Historicity in the Face of the Two World Wars’:

What, then, is the fundamental characteristic of the modern régime of historicity? It is, I believe, the predominance of the category of the future; an expanding distance (to adopt the categories of Reinhardt Koselleck) between the field of experience and the horizon of expectation. The future is the telos. It is the source of the light illuminating the past. Time is no longer a simple classificatory principle, but rather an agent, the operator of a historical process—the other name, or rather the true name, for progress. This history, which human beings make, is perceived as accelerating. There is thus a belief in history—a belief that is diffuse or reflected, but nonetheless shared.
Hartog's key question is: does this temporal regime still prevail? He notes that 'En 1975 encore, Koselleck s'interrogeait sur ce pourrait être une "fin" ou une sortie des temps modernes.' [Already in 1975, Koselleck was asking what might constitute an end of or an exit from modern time].

Hartog's hypothesis is that this end or exit has arrived, and the dominance of the modern, future-orientated regime of historicity is over. He describes
[une distance devunue maximale entre le champ d’experience et l’horizon d’attente, à la limits de la rupture. De sort que l’engendrement du temps historique semble comme suspendu. D’où peut-être cette expérience contemporaine d’un présent perpétuel, insaisissable et quasiment immobile, cherchant malgré tout à produire pour lui-même son proper temps historique. Tout se passe comme s’il n’y avait plus que du présent.]
[a distance that has become maximal between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation, to the the point of rupture, so that the generation of historical time seems to be suspended. Perhaps this is the origin of the contemporary experience of a perpetual present, ungraspable and almost immobile,  seeking despite all to produce for itself its own historical time. Everything happens as if there was nothing more than the present.]
(Please excuse my hasty translation).

As Hartog argues in ‘The Modern Régime of Historicity in the Face of the Two World Wars’, presentism starts to emerge in the intellectual climate of the post-1945 generation,  above all with Lévi-Strauss and the rise of structuralism. Presentism only gains purchase in the wider culture later: 'when the Revolution vanishes from the horizon in the 1970s, futurism recedes and the present (in the space that has been left free) gradually imposes itself as the dominant category.’

This seems to me a powerful model--even if, as one colleague put it, it is powerful in the sense that a 4x4 is powerful, implicitly lacking in fine-grained sensitivity. Nevertheless I am currently unconvinced by the chronological ordering that Hartog imposes on the successive regimes of historicity. There are plenty of examples of different temporal regimes co-existing at the same time--a phenomenon Erich Auerbach explores in Mimesis, where (above all in Chapter 2, 'Fortunata') he traces the emergence of what looks like Hartog's futurist regime of historicity in the New Testamant, in contrast to the static categories of classical history which prevail in Tacitus.

Hartog concedes in places that different regimes of historicity co-exist and compete at any one time, but my current feeling is that he is too committed to the idea of the dominance of a single regime of historicity in a given period. I think Abdelmajid Hannoum's objection (here) seems right: there is a sort of slippage in Hartog's work between the anthropology of time and the intellectual history of time.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Koselleck on Historical Time

While thinking about Communist visions of a 'radiant future', I have become increasingly interested in some meta-historical discussions about the nature of historical time. The key player for me is François Hartog, who has developed an intriguing notion of 'regimes of historicity' in this book (English translation forthcoming next year). Hartog argues that around the end of the eighteenth century, a regime of historicity in which all present experience was referred to the categories of the past was replaced by the 'modern' regime of historicity, where the future comes to dominate the horizon of expectation, and a self-conscious idea of historical progress begins to play an active role in history. He is drawing on Lévi-Strauss's distinction between hot and cold societies, and also on Reinhart Koselleck's book Futures Past, which makes an interesting distinction between the 'space of experience' and the 'horizon of expectation'. A gap or a tension between the two is what characterises modernity (Neuzeit), for Koselleck:
during Neuzeit the difference between experience and expectation has increasingly expanded; more precisely, that Neuzeit is first understood as a neue Zeit [new time] from the time that expectations have distanced themselves evermore from all previous experience.
As he goes on to explain:
The peasant world, which two hundred years ago comprised up to 80 percent of all persons in many parts of Europe, lived within the cycle of nature. Disregarding the structure of social organization, fluctuations in market conditions (especially those in long-distance agricultural trade), and monetary fluctuations, the everyday world was marked by whatever nature brought. Good or bad harvests depended upon sun, wind, and weather, and whatever skills were needed were passed on from generation to generation. Technical innovations, which did exist, took a long time to become established and thus did not bring about any rupture in the pattern of life. It was possible to adapt to them without putting the previous store of experience in disarray. Even wars were treated as events sent by God. Similar things are true of the urban life of the artisan whose guild regulations, however restrictive they might have been individually, made sure that everything would remain the way it was. That they be felt restrictive already presupposes the new horizon of expectation of a freer economy. 
This picture is oversimplified, of course, but it is clear enough for our problem: the expectations cultivated in this peasant-artisan world (and no other expectations could be cultivated) subsisted entirely on the experiences of their predecessors, experiences which in turn became those of their successors. If anything changed, then it changed so slowly and over so long a time that the breach separating previous experience and an expectation to be newly disclosed did not undermine the traditional world. This almost seamless transference of earlier experiences into coming expectations cannot be said to be true of all strata in exactly the same way. The world of politics, with its increasingly mobile instruments of power (two striking examples are the Crusades and later the annexation of distant lands); the intellectual world spawned by the Copernican revolution; and the sequence of technical inventions and discoveries in early modernity: in all these areas one must presuppose a consciousness of difference between traditional experience and coming expectation. “Quot enim fuerint errorum impedimenta in praeterito, tot sunt spei argumenta in futurum,” as Bacon said. Above all there, where an experiential space was broken up within a generation, all expectations were shaken and new ones promoted. Since the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation this vibrant tension affected ever more social strata. 
He later explains:
What was new [in modernity] was that the expectations that reached out for the future became detached from all that previous experience had to offer. Even the new experience gained from the annexation of lands overseas and from the development of science and technology was still insufficient for the derivation of future expectations. From that time on, the space of experience was no longer limited by the horizon of expectations; rather, the limits of the space of experience and of the horizon of expectations diverged.
Interesting, huh?

Monday, October 20, 2014

A Silver Lining on the Wartime Paper Shortage

I've been in the British Library working on popular front Communism and its interest in the revival of an oral tradition in poetry. Like Jack Lindsay (see previous post), Edgell Rickword believed that capitalism was closely linked to print culture and mass literacy, so that Communism in England must involve a revival of pre-capitalist, oral forms. In a short essay published in Poetry and the People in July 1940 (also cited by Ben Harker in the essay I mentioned), Rickword discerns a silver lining on the wartime paper shortage:

Whatever happens about the paper shortage, it is certain that the big combines will feel the pinch less than the small concerns. So if things go on as they are, the material difficulties in the way of a genuinely popular cultural movement are going to increase. But difficulties create opportunities, and it would be no bad thing if the rationing of paper helped to restore the balance between the written and the spoken word which is now weighted so heavily in favour of the latter. Reading is a solitary act, it is often a means of escape from reality, but speech is necessarily social. So it may be a very good thing for us to be thrown on our resources and unable to stuff our heads with the crudities and sentimentalities of the millionaire Press. Then the natural storytellers and poets will come into their own, making conscious the feelings of their group, be it large or small. They are the organisers of emotion, one of the factors directing the collective effort to a common aim. Round the camp-fires of the armies of freedom, on the steppes and on the sierras, many stories and ballads grew up celebrating popular heroes and staunch leaders of the people. During the Spanish war it was no exaggeration to say that thousands of such ballads were composed by “amateur” poets and circulated in the village or the regiment, whilst scores of them became popular throughout the country. So it has been, so it will be again with us. It is not want of paper but only lack of conviction that could hamper a popular revival of poetry. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Poetry and Phonocentric Communism

In the British Library today reading up on Jack Lindsay, a Popular Front poet. In his 'Plea for Mass Declamation' in Left Review (October 1937), he links the revival of poetry as an oral form to the Communist transformation of society.

‘Poetry has always found its vitalisation in a socially valuable relation to the speaking voice...
Only when capitalism started coming into its own was there driven a wedge between poetry and the speaking voice. Wordsworth tried to rediscover the poetically potent relationship in theoretical terms, thereby enabling a partially successful renaissance to appear. But this outburst failed; the impetus towards a fresh realisation of the living intonation (expression of the human potential in the great economic advance) was smothered by the discords of capitalism.
The wedge driven between consumer and producer had drastic effects in poetry and the criticism of poetry. The ‘literary product’ became the subject of consideration, quite apart from social process. The result could only be a poetry losing content and reality, whatever virtuosities its obsession with formal elements might induce at each spasm of the death throes.’

And as he puts it in a footnote:

‘The invention of printing, of course, had much to do with the deflection of poetry from the living voice. But printing did not arise in a social void. As a spreader of knowledge, it has a concrete good-effect; as a part of the capitalist forces, it intensified the forms of abstraction arising from bourgeois individualism. To analyse the way that these two aspects of the printed book—its uniting and dividing powers—operated, we would need to go into much detail. It is enough here to note how the book helped the severing of poetry from its communal basis.’ 

Perturbed by the 'dividing powers' of the book, Lindsay looked forward to a version of what Walter Ong would later term a 'secondary orality', associating this with the Communist dawn. To this end he wrote poems for 'mass declamation', which were recited by groups of workers at political meetings. 

(Ben Harker has written about this in his excellent article ‘Communism is English’: Edgell Rickword, Jack Lindsay and the Cultural Politics of the Popular Front. You can hear Ben Harker discussing his recent research on Jack Lindsay at the next reading group of the Anglo-Russian Research Network, at Pushkin House on 21st November.) 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

I love working on George Bernard Shaw....

I found this gem among his papers in the Harry Ransom Center in Austin:

‘It may seem only a laughing matter that we have to spell the common word “though” with six letters instead of two as the time lost is only a fraction of a second. But multiply that fraction of a second by the number of times the word hasto be written in the British Empire and in North America every hour, every day, every month, every century, and its cost grows from the fraction of a farthing to pounds, tens of pounds, hundreds, thousands, millions, billions of pounds; and the cost of a change becomes unspeakably negligable. The fact that Russia, with its 35 letter alphabet, can spell my name with two letters instead of four, may conceivably make it impossible for us to compete economically in the world with Russia.
I am ready to bequeath all I posess (if the war taxation leaves me anything to bequeath) to anyone who will establish a new 42 letter alphabet with it. I have saved years by using such an alphabet for my own works; but they all have to be transcribed and typed and set up and printed in Phenician; so that nobody’s time is saved but my own.
If only the British Government was as intelligent as I am!'

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review of "We Modern People" by Anindita Banerjee

My review of Anindita Banerjee's We Modern People appears in the latest issue of Literature and History (23:1). It's an interesting book so read the review here.