Sunday, 26 October 2014

Critic as Clerk

It was supposed to be simple. I wanted… Well, this is something that has always worried me: whose letter is Ernest actually talking about - his, Hélène’s or Alphonse’s? Too lazy to watch the film again I decided to seek expert advice, and thought I would find it amongst the pages of The Masters of Cinema Series.  Excited, I am impatient, and as I take the booklet from its plastic case I become frustrated at its recalcitrance; and tear it to pieces…Oh dear!  I’m… Can you hear it?  That thick bludgeoning thump! as my friend faints to the floor…  There is a cloud of dust; his partner is coughing; the kids screaming, shouting “dad! we can’t see the screen…”  Then suddenly: silence.  And through the settling dust we hear…a groan; hiccupping tears; a whispered cry…my name is mentioned.  Not, I might add, with either finesse or decorum.  But, my friend, what can I do now?  I’ll try not to scratch the DVD….

Of course I could have searched the film for the particular scene I needed.  But I thought my question too important for any critic to ignore.  I certainly didn’t ignore it; albeit in my original piece I disguised my uncertainty, preferring to develop the logic of my argument to its most extreme and consistent conclusion: Hélène’s love for Alphonse is founded on a complete fiction.  Oh!  Sorry!  I see that I am losing you.  We must take a break.  Go and sit over there; there; there on the floor by that pile of Dickens.  Here’s a cup of tea (Russian Caravan with a shade of milk and one and a half teaspoons of sugar; it should do you quite nicely).  And here are some ginger biscuits.  You don’t like ginger?  What about a Victoria Sponge…  Nice, yes? Oh, I should hope so…  So you’re…you’re comfortable? That’s good. Here is the film.  And here is my original review.   I’ll be back in a couple of hours.

When years ago I wrote about Muriel I argued that the letter was from Ernest.  Thinking about it now, after having watched the film for a second time, I believe the letter could actually be Ernest’s; the unexploded bomb buried in the past even more devastating than Hélène could ever have imagined - it was Ernest who loved her; and his love was hidden by a sleight of hand.  Of course this doesn't affect my conclusion; indeed, if anything, it strengthens my argument.  The bomb goes off, and the fictions tumble down like buildings broken in the Blitz.

But what about the booklet?

The booklet…?  Have I forgotten it?  I wish I could.  I hesitate to…


Yes.  I’m… I do not wish to be polemical, you understand.  

I know.  Go on… 

Well.  Yes.  Ok.  Ok, let’s take a peek at its paragraphs, which seem classics of the genre.

A genre?

Yes.  The film-school review.

“I’ve always refused the word ‘memory’ apropos my work”, Alain Resnais insisted time and again to interviewers in the 1960s.  “I’d use the word “imagination.”  His statement must have struck contemporary critics as perverse, or perhaps just pedantic, because the association of Resnais and memory still forms an entry in any New Revised Dictionary of Received Ideas that sees fit to include him (see also, Time, though in that case as well Resnais maintains that he’s concerned less with time than consciousness).

The difference is largely one of emphasis.  Recent research in neuroscience maintains that any specific memory moves further and further from its source stimuli each time it’s called upon, the grit of the original experience accumulating smoother layers with each circulation, gradually rounding into the pearl of the story.  It’s a conclusion that Marcel Proust, whom Resnais cites as a primary influence, had reached long before.  The monumental conjunction of tea and madeleine stands at the opening of his investigation into lost time precisely because it allowed him to momentarily bypass conscious recollection, opening an unguarded back door onto the past by way of the body’s own unthinking memory and indiscriminate grouping of associations: this taste, that place, that time.  (Everything is Just Like You. From Eureka!  The Masters of Cinema Series)

We are bored with neuroscience.  Mostly because the references to it are so weak and repetitively dull; less an explanation they are a mantra that restates common sense in pseudo-scientific clichés.i  

The reference to tea and madeleine is also very tiresome.  We are bored with Proust.  No!  Let us be more precise.  We are bored with the critics who quote Proust so selectively.  Thousands and thousands of pages across multiple volumes and all we ever hear about is a single cake and a pot of tea.  Why not some other episode to explain why Proust is such a major influence on Resnais’ work; a scene that shows us why this great director uses the word “imagination” not memory to describe his cinematic approach.  Why not let Marcel himself tell us why he can only recover lost time by recreating it in literature; the only way, he believes, to bring back the texture of the original experience; for memories are like photographs, lacking the physicality of the past they cannot truly live inside our consciousness.ii  To properly, to really, exist in the present the past must be a well-crafted fiction.

Unclear about his Proust Mr Kite takes neuroscience too much at its own level of populist theorising.  When I think of my own consciousness I find that many of my memories pop into my awareness almost at random, and that only a very small number could be worked over in the way that he describes - because many of them occur only once or twice during a lifetime.  Others have a longer lifespan, returning to our minds over and over again; but of these not all are of equal intensity or value.  A few are so sharp as to etch themselves into the mind’s matter like steel onto stone…

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.  The mind receives a myriad of impressions - trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there.  (Virginia Woolf, quoted by Ruth Scurr; TLS 22&29/08/2014)

Through their regular recurrence our memories may well create an ideal image that has more to do with the workings of memory than with the original quotidian experience.  However, it is the vivacity of the experienced event, together with the existing patterns of our consciousness, that are the determining influences on its future forms in our mind.  It is the quality of the original impression, plus the mind’s creative capacity, that designs each one of our memory’s lithographic prints.iii

Resnais knows this. Thus the early scene where Françoise, Alphonse and Hélène walk through the high street, and where Resnais freezes then repeats a small number of their body movements and facial expressions; a technique that perfectly captures those sudden jolts of intense consciousness when we obsessively focus on some single thing – such as a phrase, the movement of a hand, or a self-conscious smile - to which we immediately attach an immense importance.  This is a moment where Hélène and Alphonse are neurotically alive to the microscopic nuances of each other’s reactions as they both search for signs of their dormant love.iv 

Even if assume Mr Kite’s abstract formulations are true they tell us very little about what is actually happening in this film.  They are ex cathedra statements which match the general tone of his piece.


Yes.  His tone tells us that we are in the hands of an expert who knows exactly what this film means; for he has learnt about it from the professionals.  Here is the establishment view, which we are expected to accept as authoritative.  But such presumed authority has its own dangers.  Who, after all, are these professionals?  They are students who have passed a few exams…  



But, you surely….

These ideas could be merely conventional wisdom - or more accurately: institutional common sense - dressed up in the language of hieratic expertise.

Minim is not so confident of his rules of judgement as not very eagerly to catch new light from the name of the author.  He is commonly so prudent as to spare those whom he cannot resist, unless, as will sometimes happen, he finds the public combined against them.  But a fresh pretender to fame he is strongly inclined to censure, till his own honour requires that he commend him.  Till he knows the success of a composition, he intrenches himself in general terms; there are some new thoughts and beautiful passages, but there is likewise much which he would have advised the author to expunge.  He has several favourite epithets, of which he has never settled the meaning, but which are very commodiously applied to books which he has not read, or cannot understand.  One is manly, another is dry, another stiff, and another flimsy; sometimes he discovers delicacy of style, and sometimes meets with strange expressions.  (Samuel Johnson, How to Become a Critic (2), in The Major Works)

Mr Kite is not as bad as this satirical sketch.  Crucially, he has been far better educated than Johnson’s caricature; unlike Minim he carries within him the collective knowledge of an academic discipline.  He does know a lot about films.  We can learn much from him.

Boulogne, a city largely obliterated by air raids during World War II, stands as memory’s objective correlative: the original object has been destroyed, what stands now are attempts at reconstruction and the assertion of the new on spaces still saturated with association for surviving inhabitants…

Contemporary locations are themselves situated uneasily in time, as in the restaurant staffed by waitresses in “regional costume”, standing at an awkward juncture from their surroundings as a bit of local color crudely grafted onto the “modern”.  The clearest example is Hélène’s apartment-cum-antique-boutique, cluttered with objects from disparate periods with no attempt whatsoever at creating an overarching context.  The apartment becomes a spatial representation of the film’s characters, as well as a model of the city itself: each object torn from its roots and bearing nothing more definite than an indistinct aura of age and history, set down as if at random next to other objects and competing claims.

This analysis begins soundly, but quickly veers into dogma - it is not memory but the past that has been obliterated.  This distinction is extremely important because Hélène has invented an ideal past to replace the real one that she lost during the war.  It is the reason why Resnais prefers imagination to memory.  Mr Kite is so in love with neuroscience that he mistakenly conflates them, and so subtly misreads this film, which is about the actively conscious mind creating fictions to maintain a psychological equilibrium under difficult conditions - an unstable present is trying to keep out an uncomfortable past; whose reality is regarded as an unwelcome intruder.

I like the bit about regional costumes; although in my view the “local color” is a gimcrack effort to retain the authenticity of a past that no longer exists; yet one more symbol, in this movie obese with them, that Resnais uses to emphasise the main theme.  But after catching our attention Mr Kite wanders off down New Bond Street to look at its shop windows full of fashionable ideas.v  In one display he sees a party of mannequins; they are wearing orange mini-dresses with large polkadots, on which words are printed that are too small to read.  Trying to decipher them he bangs his head on the glass…  His friends do not notice.  Fran is enthralled by the speech bubbles that quote Lacan and Derrida, Barthes and Philippe Sollers.  She shouts out their curious words: “plurality”, “the empty centre”, “the randomness of existence….”  “We learn to unlearn”, says Archibald. “Knowledge must efface itself. The truth can exist only when it accepts its own non-existence; every truth includes its negation, so that even this statement is false.”  “Yippee!”  cries Zoe, who is scrutinising the grey background behind the bright hallucinogenic colours.  As she stares at the backdrop she sees figures emerge from it. “Look at this!”  Of course!  It is an old black and white photograph.  A white man stands next to a railway track; there are telegraph poles; a small group of what look like labourers; and the jungle is everywhere.  There are also Indians; and there are men with rifles.  The European looks like an academic.  “Is he French?”  Fran reckons he’s an anthropologist.  “Ah!  Look!”  What Zoe had taken for pink baubles are actually bullet holes.  They peer between the plastic models to look more closely at these ragged apertures… They see vague shapes and colours.  “Let’s look through each one!” Zoe shouts out.  “But there are hundreds of them”.  “Come on!  Don’t be so…”  “All right.  All right.  Life is but a palimpsest of itself.  The present nothing more than the agglomeration of all the disappearances of the past.  A moment of non-action the totality of all previous actions; so that…” “Look at that!”  “…there is no difference between doing something and doing nothing.”  “Yes Archie; you must always find an argument…” “It is concepts…” “And he always does.”  As they look through these holes they are beginning to understand.  It is a May Day festival, with Morris Men and a photographer photographing… “us!” Jake cries.  Zoe is again calling out: “Come over here.  Look!  Look at this.” Through a close cluster of larger holes they see soldiers with raised rifles and a line of dejected men.  Fran calls them an execution squad. “Morris Men?”  “No.  Mexican peasants.”  Zoe says it’s a picture by Manet.  Archibald disagrees.  He talks about metaphor and metonymy and symbolic self-referentiality.  “In such a system a sign can only relate to other signs.  They can have no connection to anything external.  They are in fact an entirely closed system of signification.  Such signs can therefore only acquire meaning through their relations to each other. Relation itself thus becomes a value. Do you see?  It is through the meaninglessness of each sign that the system acquires its meaning.  Something out of nothing.”  Mr Kite nods his still painful head.  Fran suggests they all go inside and have a cup of coffee.  But as they walk to the sliding doors the mannequins rotate; and new words start to appear...   “No!  Zoe! I’m thirsty!”    

Sollers & Co were the extremist reaction to the abstract rationalism which reached its peak in the  Then around 1961 this Late Modernism began to fall apart; Muriel an eye witness account of the very moment when it started to collapse.vii  

Mr Kite has overlooked something very obvious.  The antiques exist in Hélène’s apartment only because she is selling them.  One kind of order - the temporal - has been replaced by another - the commercial -, which is founded on a conscious trick: Hélène pretends that the objects are family heirlooms.viii There is “an overarching context”, though it is quite subtle; because it is purposively designed to deceive the customers into thinking Hélène is an unsophisticated trader; an amateur in the profession.  Mr Kite is right that the apartment is a symbol, but his assumptions have lead him astray about their meaning.  Those boutiques behind Oxford Street have sold him shoddy goods.ix

Boulogne is being rebuilt on essentially modernist principles. It is an example of that overly cool rationalist approach that encouraged the counter-rebellion of the 1960s; Muriel poking satirical fun at this attempt to overcome the irrationalities of the human environment through Roland de Smoke’s story about the subsiding apartment block.  The bureaucrats who built the post-war world were constructing it upon unsound foundations.  In France, such insubstantiality had an even greater resonance because of the myth of the resistance, which disguised the unpleasant truth that most of the population had quietly collaborated with the Germans.x 

Present-day Boulogne is a city constructed out of a collection of fictions, whose existence requires that people forget the facts of the past.  But these facts will not go away; and so this carefully created stability suffers from periodic subsidence.  The city’s inhabitants need to forget the war.  Yet their very fictions perpetuate it.  Here is the tension in post-war France, which is symbolised by Hélène’s compulsive gambling - under the surface of her stories there is wild feeling desperate to get out.  Selling the past comes at a cost, which ultimately she cannot afford.  It is the reason, we believe, that she contacts Alphonse.  She hopes that he will deposit some of their past wealth into her now depleted bank account.  Or more prosaically: she hopes to regain her old love.

The collection of antiques might be random, and this might suggest a certain randomness in the reconstruction of Boulogne, inevitable as not all the buildings were destroyed during the war.  But to concentrate on this aspect is to mistake a minor symbol for a major one: Hélène is actually trying to live off the past; her apartment the remnants of a history she fakes with conscious intent.  Before the film begins she finds that she can no longer maintain the façade; and so sends a letter to her old lover.  Alphonse returns, and sets off a time bomb that will destroy this reconstructed but fragile existence.  

Mr Kite also undercooks the power of the present, which dominates the end of the film.  Two examples will suffice.  When Ernest tells the truth about Alphonse his words are accompanied by images of a modern apartment block (it is almost as if Hélène’s mind is being bombarded by it).  Following these revelations Hélène runs to the railway station; where the stationmaster tells her that all trains to Paris now go from the new one.  The present is everywhere, and Hélène cannot escape from it.  Her fictions have collapsed, and she lives amongst their ruined histories.  The result?  The present has been turned into an alien place to which her past can give no meaning.  The last shot is of a strange woman, we assume it is Alphonse’s wife Simone, entering and then leaving Hélène’s now empty apartment.  It is an enigmatic ending, which suggests…  Well, let us listen to Mr Kite.

It keeps opening even in its closing moments, as a woman, presumably the frequently referenced Simone, walks through the deserted apartment, and the camera departs from the fixed positions it has held throughout the film to wander with her, past the table cluttered with mute remnants of the climactic gathering we’d witnessed earlier, tracing a clear path through rooms whose exact relations had previously been obscured.  None of it communicates anything to the late arrival beyond the simple fact that people were here and now they are gone.

Mr Kite is very good at carefully describing the film. He is especially good at cataloging its cinematic techniques. However, when confronted with an ambiguous scene he, like Simone, struggles to see through its appearances to the meaning underneath; it is the reason, we are sure, why he relies on a theory to explicate this movie. 

Let us invent an interpretation.  The apartment is empty.  Why?  Because the new life Hélène has manufactured for herself has been voided by a neutron bomb; more banal souls would call it: The Truth.  Simone is the weapon that Ernest has used to destroy the fabricated constructions Hélène had built to domesticate a past that she couldn't forget but had found too painful to confront directly.  When this truth arrives it evacuates Hélène’s stories of all meaning, to leave only their empty form.  Simone now leaves, and we, like Hélène, have no idea what will happen next.xi  The present has become a vacant flat that we populate with our own speculations.

There are times when Mr Kite simply repeats his lecture notes.  We surmise that he had the highest marks in his class.

Muriel is cluttered with emblems of itself and its operations.  In fact, absolutely everything in the film comes to stand as a potential emblem, and Muriel forever runs the risk of seeming utterly overdetermined, an airless and rather literary conceit in which themes and images are forever reflecting back to a central premise.  What saves the film from this and sets up its unique tension is its parallel urge to dispersal and expansion – an apparently insatiable and obviously impossible desire to include more and more detail, to record every nook and vantage of the city and to represent the full continuum of the lives of its characters through seemingly random selection, including a fair proportion of the apparently unmarked and “in-between” moments of daily life.

So omnivorous and self-aware is the film’s guiding consciousness that one can also find emblems of both these contracting/expanding tendencies embedded within.

The first shows the city as a circle, centred on a bright steel knob, denoting probably “You are here”, always a helpful reminder, and an apt image of the film as closed and centred system.

In the second a stranger (to the city, to the film) enters to ask an inhabitant for directions to the city centre.  Why this is it, she replies, surprised, and the man looks around as if disbelieving, or perhaps in the act of recategorising the environment.  The branching structures of Muriel continually suggest that any image might function as secret centre, a fulcrum at once “here” and “nowhere”.

Whenever we read a piece of film criticism the first question we should always ask ourselves is this: can the analysis be applied to all films?  If the answer is yes, then we know the critic is not really writing about this particular movie at all. He is like a Marxist who reduces all phenomena to the class struggle, and when asked to comment on the owner of hamburger stand tells us that the woman is expropriating her customers. Ouch! In this case: Muriel is reduced to a source of illustrative material, which the critic uses to propagate a small cluster of modish ideas.  Virginia Woolf knew exactly what she was writing about:

But the criticism which is based upon the ‘doctrines of Aristotle, of Goethe, and of Coleridge’, especially when practised in the columns of a newspaper, is apt to have the opposite effect.  It is apt to be sweeping and sterile.  The laws of art can be stated in a little essay only in so compressed a form that unless we are prepared to think them out for ourselves, and apply them to the poem or novel in question, they remain barren, and we accept them without thinking. (Books and Portraits)

Criticism exists to engender thought, and stimulate enthusiasm for the works under review.xii Criticism can only do this if it has its own vitality, whose source is the critic’s own experience of the works they write about.  Ideally such criticism should then be redirected back at the professors who taught him; modifying, or even destroying, their too refined too careful too rigid doctrines. 

And you?



Oh.  I don’t expect you to apply my ideas to a corpus of films.  If they have any value they should excite you to think up new insights for yourself.  Good criticism is like the best philosophy - it should intoxicate us with the feelings of thought.xiii

But…  I don’t know how to say this…

Go on.

But… you sound like… Dare I say it…

Go on!

Yes.  Ok.  You talk like Roland Barthes, and even…um… even… 

Jacques Derrida?  Yes, I do, I know.xiv  But there are at least two differences between us.  The first: I believe good criticism should elucidate a work of art not replace it completely.  Second: both Barthes and Derrida are too discursive.  They believe that language is the same as thought, when it is just an aspect of it.  This leads them to argue it is only by making a free space within language itself that freedom can occur.  Liberty thus becomes a slave to linguistics. Late-period Barthes believing the reader should behave like a comedy anarchist throwing word bombs into the middle of sentences; Derrida that you should pun the sense out of them.xv  I find most of this stuff boring.

Come come.  You are too sweeping.  

I find it boring because their work is full of ideas that have already been thought out elsewhere.  Their work is merely the application of existing concepts, which are dressed up in a new language which is rather sterile.  Even Barthes in his classic Mythologies can at times sound like a poor ventriloquist, mouthing the anti-bourgeois pieties of an antiquated Marxist-Leninist.  This is applied criticism.  In my view a great reading of a film should stimulate us physically; just as when we read a novel by William Sansom or a poem by Charles Reznikoff. The problem with Derrida and much of Barthes is that they operate only at the level of the conscious mind.  They employ bureaucratic reason whilst wearing Pierrot costumes.   

Also…third, if you like: I am not opposed to fantastic interpretations, providing they produce the same effects as literature.  Think of Virginia Woolf, who would often leave a book behind to follow her own inventions; which being so analytically and figuratively rich we enjoy even more than the originals;xvi if we were to read them, which in most cases we never shall.  Here the criticism has outlasted the art; our sad but necessary ideal.xvii

Mr Kite is less a critic of films than a student of film criticism.  For him it is the criticism that comes first.  And this is not surprising.  Like many students he has been educated to see the intellectual world only through the received wisdom of the professors who taught him.  Such a system produces minds that are predisposed to see the abstract before the particular; and where knowledge is conceived to consist only of categories, trends, laws, generalisations, and the labels that apply to them.xviii The result, as Denis Donoghue argues, is that the arts are explicated too much.xix  No longer do they have their own unique presence, but exist merely to provide data for academic analysis.  This can produce some odd effects.  Trapped by their training into a mentality that denies the individuality and corporeality of art, academics have designed a discourse to advertise their plight.  Their need for “plurality”, “difference”, “randomness”, is their cry of helplessness.  Trapped inside minds that have been conditioned to think like an institution they can no longer appreciate the single, concrete, self-contained object whose meaning resides in itself.  Even when they write about the particular they can only expound it in general terms, and then only in relation to other things - the canon, capitalism, the unconscious, instinctive ancestral drives etc etc.  Life for them exists only when it is incorporated into a sentence (one that is increasingly made up of abstract nouns).xx  Words are their only reality.xxi And so they seek freedom only through these words.

In his essay Mr Kite hasn’t really grasped the particularities of a film which is about the different ways each character relates to their own past.

Muriel does have a superficial resemblance to Mr Kite’s assertion that memories accrete until the original experience is lost underneath them.  However, the really big influence on the film is Sigmund Freud - the mind invents comforting fictions to protect itself from its unruly unconscious.  The stories these characters tell themselves are designed to domesticate the past; and so allow them to exist in the present in relative stability.  The desire to make the past safe is in tension with the attempt to save it from the contingencies of a daily life that erases its traces.  These opposite tendencies are represented by two different characters - Hélène and Bernard - and the tension between them is catastrophically resolved when Ernest comes to Boulogne.

The reason for Ernest’s ignorance about the town centre is banal: because Boulogne was one of the few French cities to have been destroyed during the war its city centre resembles a Parisian suburb.  

Ernest also serves as a wonderful metaphor: he brings old Paris - the actual past - into this new city - the imagined present - to shatter its fragile equilibrium and to leave behind…an empty apartment.  Mr Kite believes all these symbolic nuances are “overdetermined”.  How this overworked academic cliché bores me!  I drift off over the pages…  zzzz. zzzz.  zzzz. zzzz. zzzzzzzz. Gnorrssshheeessssnononorq!  I wake up.  I stumble down stairs; where I slip on the last step to fall amongst by a pile of dusty books; which scatter across the floor.  I crawl to the imagined safety of the settee.  Arggghhh!  The Oxford Guide to Film Studies wedges into my groin.  I cry out.  I grab the book and throw it without thought… It smashes a window.  I fall back.  And sleep once more.  I wake up to a police officer shaking me… “The window? Oh.  Oh.  Oh.  But I didn’t mean it.  Really, sir.  I have enormous respect for the academic profession; just look around you; see how many sit on these shelves…  A few are tattered, I know; tattered, sir, they are not defaced.  Sir.  Officer!  I have apologised to Mr Perkins and to Ms Houston; who are actually good friends of mine.  Yes yes, I know officer, that that one is brand new…  But I do, officer. Yes, I do… No!  Just look!  Please; I wasn’t in my right mind.  You know how it is.  It’s the words.  They…They carry us away; like… like… like… Officer!  Please.  I didn’t…” Overdetermined.  The use of such a cliché reflects a critic’s taste; this one preferring the simple big idea to the complex subtleties of a single film by Alain Resnais.

Muriel is a classic, and like all classics uses its metaphors in multiple ways; each one giving resonance to the characters’ varying thoughts and feelings, which in turn reflect the slightly different relationship they all have to the film’s main theme – the unstable relationship of the present to the past.  Unwilling to deal with these shades of meaning Mr Kite slides into incoherence -  “as secret centre, a fulcrum at once ‘here’ and ‘nowhere’”.xxii

…the film may be the fullest realisation of Resnais’ stated interest in filming the operations of consciousness itself.  Muriel is a brain, and its “narrator” is a realised, though covert fiction.

Since I’ve made a similar claim of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1… it was reassuring to come across the following remarks by Rivette from a 1963 Cahiers du cinema roundtable discussion of Muriel.

“From the moment of the opening shots what you are given is just clues, every shot is a clue – in other words, it’s both the imprint left by an action and what the action entails, its mystery.  The motive of the investigation or investigations is never revealed, any more than the end of the film provides solutions, or at least a resolution. Each shot is a clue exposed, but for its own sake.  And it is the actual accumulation of these clues, the momentum they generate, which is absorbed into the dynamic structure and roundabout movement of the film, or rather which creates it.” 

This suggests to me that Rivette sees Muriel as a film in the process of investigating itself, and that each step of the investigation expands outward to include more leads, more data, rather than spiralling down toward a single crime and culprit in orthodox Holmes-style.

I do think the film shows a particular kind of consciousness; although it needs to be explicated better than this; Mr Kite’s exposition too general to be of much value.  Let us be specific.  Let us compare Muriel with Vertigo, a film that is concerned with a very different kind of mind; one with a distinctly different connection to the past - Scottie able to free himself of his baneful history only by acting it out (itself an old psychoanalytic concept).  Indeed, Muriel appears to be a gloss on Hitchcock’s masterpiece: Hélène and Scottie are both living with a past that is essentially an illusion.xxiii Although the similarities end with these first fictions. Resnais’ heroine is unable to free herself from the emotions arising out of her affair; while Hitchcock’s hero is obsessed by a puzzle he cannot solve - those last confusing words that contradict his lover’s suicide. The one director is interested in the extreme mental states of the mind which when stressed collapse into insanity. The other prefers the complexities of more ordinary mentalities; Muriel is Vertigo transposed to the day-to-day routines of Mrs Jones of 27 Cedar Terrace.xxiv 

In both films the return of the past leads to the destruction of the first fiction - neither Alphonse nor Madeleine are what they appeared to be -, which produces a crisis in the present that destroys the illusions built upon those false stories.  The result: Hélène tries to run away; Scottie acts like a maniac, forcing his lover to re-enact the original event.  

Scottie can only free himself of the past by killing it.  His vertigo is cured only when Madeleine falls from the tower for the second time.  In contrast, Hélène, until she surrenders to a sentimental urge, is able to tame the past by making use of it - the antiques she sells in her apartment are both a practical enterprise and allegorical symbols for the stories she tells herself about her affair with Alphonse.

When we think of the significant differences in psychology between these two characters Mr Kite’s phrase “the operations of consciousness itself” sounds somewhat portentous.  The overblown tone indicates the weakest point in his analysis - for despite his view that the film is about everything and nothing (my interpretation of “here” and “nowhere”) deep down he believes that a single explanation will reveal its secret.

The comments on Rivette suggest Mr Kite hasn't grasped his own idea.  He also seems unaware of the intellectual background to this movie.  What is being described here is a film where the detective has walked out of the screen to become a member of the audience -  it is we who are expected to discover the solution (or more accurately: the meaning) of this work.  Such views were common to the time: Rivette is speaking nouveau roman.

Blanks and gaps: to read is to fill them on the evidence of conflicting and ambiguous clues.  Once the technical discovery - or rediscovery - is made, it is not a long step to the narrative which at least tries, as in Robbe-Grillet, to be nearly all gap.  All markers of temporality, character, closure, and so forth, are subject to a confusion thought to be beneficent, and the authority to interpret is transferred to the reader.  (Frank Kermode, Essays on Fiction 1971-82)

Expressed in this way we see that the nouveau roman is actually the films of Alfred Hitchcock with the heroes taken out.xxv  Imagine Vertigo without Scottie’s recovery, and the loss of all those explanatory scenes….

Rivette is updating the old modernist idea that an artwork is a self-contained body of signification. In this view a film is a living entity.  And being an individual organism it is by their very nature partly opaque to interpretation - because it will always contain elements that resist explication.  By leaving out the “solution” the nouveau roman enhanced this area of opacity, which gives each specific artwork its own peculiar resonance.xxvi 

This view is subtly different (that qualification - “or at least a resolution” - is crucial) from Mr Kite’s argument for an open-ended and self-referential movie; a post-modern/deconstructive cliché.xxvii  Rivette is clear about what he means; it is why he writes of the “dynamic structure and roundabout movement of the film”.  There is a structure to this movie.  There is also a theme that gives it a unity, as Mr Kite earlier recognised when he wrote that the “emblems” are “overdetermined”.xxviii Our critic wants it both ways! Just like the professors who first proclaim that a text is open to innumerable meanings, but then conclude that underneath the surface of every sentence there is the same crocodile waiting to devour its author.  This crocodile is called Power and it is supposed to manifest itself through politics; the opium of the academics.xxix  Deconstruction thus follows its ultimate master - Freudian psychoanalysis -, which although positing a wild and irrational unconscious actually invented a domestic pet that it house-trains with a simple and highly self-conscious method.  “Come here Fido.  Come on!  There Fido.  Come come.”  And it does.  Grabbing Oedipus between its jaws…

But if this Muriel-mind has no master, does not stand in direct relation to the consciousness of any particular character, it does have a representative in the fiction: Bernard, a character whose abrupt, bird-like movements and unpredictable alterations of attention mirror its own.  Bernard stays on the sidelines of the intersecting romantic triangles of the film, in each of which Hélène stands as common denominator, but he includes some of that material, along with much seemingly random data drawn from the streets of the city, in his own sprawling cinematic investigation.  More than one writer on the film has referred to Bernard as an aspiring documentary filmmaker, but the character says quite explicitly that he isn’t making a movie, he’s “collecting evidence”.

This is precisely Muriel’s mode of operation.  The material itself, the people, places, and incidents recorded, are rigorously external – no figure holds a dominant position, and the film maintains a strict and continuous (if fragmented and elliptical) chronology when it comes to narrative events.

After reading these paragraphs we… jump out of the building shouting “Eureka!”  Of course!  It is so obvious. Behind too much of modern criticism is this obsession with egalitarianism.  No leaders please!  Thus Mr Kite argues that “no figure” must hold “a dominant position” in this film.  So much follows from this (in the West by now almost universal) belief: the author, a plot, a single theme, are all signs of an autocratic past which it is the critic’s job to destroy.  Here is the academic as sans  Closely related to this idea is the behaviourist assumption that we merely react to phenomena.xxxi  It follows that an artist cannot create new things; she merely rearranges what already exists.  Thus the shift of critical attention from the author’s intentions to the influences that produced them; a view that holds a virtual monopoly in modern criticism.xxxii  Here we note the adjectives used to describe Bernard: “abrupt”; “bird-like movements”; “unpredictable alterations of attention”; “random”; and “sprawling”.  The conscious mind is at the mercy of external, and essentially arbitrary, stimuli.  As a thinking man Bernard has ceased to exist.  He is the plaything of his environment; a victim of circumstance.xxxiii

Yet this film contains a number of very obvious thematic and stylistic devices that indicate that it is a work by Alain Resnais.  Indeed, in his opening remarks Mr Kite is keen to mention this; although he conflates Resnais’ general interest in time and memory with the specific theme in this movie, which is about a past that being too dangerously alive destabilises the present.  It is this past that structures so much of these characters’ actions; Bernard’s “unpredictable alterations of attention” due not to random stimuli but to a single obsession - his time in Algeria -, which abstracts him from the ordinary activities of the household.xxxiv

Algeria?  But Mr Schloss…


Aren’t you guilty…

I know what you’re going to say…

…of turning the environment into a causal agent?

Not quite.  For sure what happened in the past is one of the causes of Bernard’s behaviour (no one is impervious to their time and place), but it is not the only cause.  Unlike his colleagues, who appear to live comfortably with their experiences in Algeria, Bernard is disturbed by his wartime actions.  He is different from his former friends.  His different character determining the past’s influence upon him.xxxv It is his own unique personality that turns the war into an obsession.

Does Bernard symbolise the film’s technique, and so prove that Muriel is self-reflexive?  It is possible, but…Bernard seems to be doing something quite different from his creator. Resnais is concerned with how the past - its memories, its fictions, its realities when these fictions are exposed - interacts with the present.  He is interested in the nuances of these interactions, and the variety of his characters’ responses.  Bernard, by contrast, wants to use the past to condemn the present; his search for “evidence” suggests that he wants to prosecute someone – himself, his family, France, modern Europe? – for the crime that was committed in Algeria.xxxvi  Bernard, to quote Mr Kite, wants to collect “data” to uncover a “single crime and culprit in orthodox Holmes-style”.  Bernard, therefore, cannot be a representative of the film’s technique; he is just another character who has his own unique relationship to the past.  In his case the relationship is fatal.

We note a mistake:  Bernard doesn’t stand aside from these love triangles.  There are strong signs of sexual jealousy, and the last scene with Hélène does suggest that he is in love with her - a nod to the Oedipus Complex?xxxvii  Resnais has put his movie on the couch, where he allows it to free-associate, providing the images from out of which the unconscious truth may emerge (for those of us prepared to listen and to think about these images for ourselves). Or more prosaically: because no single solution is given doesn’t mean there isn’t one; it is up to the audience to discover it.

Mr Kite argues that this film has its own “stuttering” syntax.xxxviii  True.  This needs to be said, although he wants to put it in contradistinction to the techniques we associate with mainstream Hollywood; thus his argument that those scenes that resemble classic cinematography are a

…hysterical elaboration of the orthodox practice of starting on a detail and then cutting or pulling back to reveal a long shot of the scene…

Maybe.  For me this director is using a mix of techniques to create both a distinctive style and to tell a rather conventional story; giving his audience just enough material to understand it. Like many of the Nouvelle Vague directors Resnais is playing with Hollywood’s conventions not junking them.xxxix   

The dispersal of attention, the desire to include more and more of the world and its transient textures in the film, merges with the strong pull toward a thematic centre to produce a sense of generalised and free-floating paranoia.  Every shot, every detail, is both suggestive of overarching meaning and yet grounded and specific enough to suggest that these are indeed pieces pulled from life.  The anxiety of the form lies precisely in this magnetic push-pull: if the source of paranoia could ever be placed, it would evaporate into genre.  Here it’s a continual spur toward interpretation aligned with an uncertainty that any underlying structure of meaning could ever prove sturdy enough to bear the weight of detail.

Vertigo does evoke a real sense of paranoia.  In the second half of the film Scottie lives inside a sealed room so crowded with ghosts that he cannot get to the window…

None of the characters in Muriel are like this; although Bernard comes closest - does Muriel really exist? Is she a fiction that allows him to live with the horrors of Algeria (is he pretending to himself that he has rescued her from the war)?  When Françoise plays the tape does she kill (or erase - she intended to record) his invention?  What follows suggests that this is so… With the fictional character wiped out Bernard must face the raw reality of his lethal past.  But this he cannot do.  The screams of the murdered woman driving him to suicide.xl

If such a reading is accurate we can quote Philippe Sollers after all (although only for this film - we reject his generalisation to all films): the centre of Muriel is indeed empty.xli  The title referring to a woman who does not exist.  Muriel is a fiction; a psychological drug that Bernard invents to free himself from the cruelty of his own behaviour.

Scottie, in contrast, cannot escape from his past; which has become a fixed idea, an all-consuming obsession that crowds his consciousness with monomaniacal signs and meanings; and it is these that make him paranoid, forcing him to search incessantly for his lost lover; a search that only can stop when he finds (or more accurately reinvents) her, and she dies once again. Vertigo is a detective story that has gone wrong (by the end of the film the roles are reversed and the detective becomes the killer, albeit inadvertently).  All the complex subterranean plots we expect a hero to uncover and so solve here enmesh and destroy him - Scottie becomes their victim; the conventional plot tunnelling down into his psyche to leave huge caverns in his reason and common sense.  Vertigo, we could (wryly) argue, is an early example of Nouvelle Critique; a style of criticism that believed language, and by extension narrative, determines human behaviour. 

The weakness of Vertigo is that Scottie’s fiction turns out to be real.xlii  There is after all a plot that the hero can solve; although Hitchcock allows the audience to know the solution first, so as to create his own narrative effects. Resnais, one guesses, wanted to remake this film but without such genre-like tropes.xliii  He succeeded. Muriel is a realistic account of the perturbations of the past in a present built on weak foundations.  It also captures the psychology of a love affair in its first insecure stages; that period when doubts, suspicions, and a general anxiety invades our consciousness.  This is a state of mind that although it can sometimes resemble paranoia - the lover lives permanently inside our head and we expect her to materialise at any time (especially when in places thick with associations of the affair) - is a quite different mental condition.xliv  When in love there are long periods of longing where the mind falls into inertia; but always there is the expectation of fulfilment, encouraged by those surges of utopian joy when we meet a sign of the loved one’s existence - her knickers under the bed; her name on a street corner…  

In Vertigo we are watching a mind that has collapsed.  In Muriel we see an actual collapse only in the last few scenes; the roof fall in Bernard’s studio an exact metaphor for the sudden implosion of both his and Hélène’s carefully constructed but fragile post-war fictions.  

To summarise: the feel of these two films is qualitatively different; these differences accurately representing the different mental states they wish to illustrate.  

So there is no paranoia…?  

Mr Kite has employed the usual academic trick of mangling the meaning of a word to camouflage the banality of the analysis; and if we read too quickly we can be easily taken in.

Your language is strong Mr Schloss.  Banality of the analysis?  

If a film has any quality it will not exhaust interpretation.  There will always be details that escape the “underlying structure”; another word, I believe, for authorial intention.xlv

Unable to grasp the concrete symbols of the film our critic wobbles all over the place.

If Muriel is an investigation, what is its object?  It would seem to align somewhat with Bernard’s project, especially since they both designate the same absent centre in the name “Muriel”.  But from what we can tell… Bernard’s inquiry is centred on Algeria, and in particular on a single war crime: the rape and apparent murder of an Algerian girl who may or may not have been named Muriel.  Why does Boulogne figure in his ongoing inquiry?  We can only speculate: perhaps he films café patrons, shop windows, the sliding building that recurs throughout Muriel as a minor motif to indicate that these signs of consumer comfort are historically predicated on the “not-here” of a colonial economy, on blood and exploitation.

When unable to properly elucidate a scene (that is: to get properly inside it) we roll out some big (that is: external) abstraction, which sounds profound but whose meaning…Is Bernard really engaged in a Marxist analysis of the Algerian war?  This doesn't seem likely.  The more compelling explanation is a simple psychological one: he is using his photography to understand how people like him and his friends could have behaved with such brutal abandonment.  Of course his investigation is doomed to failure for there is no connection at all between the daily life of Boulogne and the atrocities in North Africa.  For it is the situation itself that produces the moral ugliness.  Most young men would behave like beasts if forced to fight in a guerrilla war.xlvi

But Mr Kite is so occupied by politics…

Bernard… is certainly interested in Alphonse himself, but mainly, it would seem, as a representative sample of the hypocrisy, dishonesty, racism, and bad conscience of the nation itself.

…that he misses the nuances which relate to the main theme: Bernard realises that Alphonse doesn't really know Algeria; raising the suspicion that he never actually lived there. 

Politics.  It was the religion of the 20th century.  One hundred years hence will commentators look back on this time as an oddly religious age, comparing the political pamphlets with the theological tracts of particularly the 17th century?   This seems possible; given that much of the daily life of politics is hidden from view, with only a relatively small number of people involved in its actual functioning, much of which is routine administration and social networking.xlvii  Intellectuals are largely excluded.  Even their modes of thought are denied by the bureaucratic process of executive government.  Yet oh how they long for the days when it was they who validated the social realm!xlviii  The reason, no doubt, for their contemptuous dismissal of the bourgeoisie, who do most of this work now. 

In the mid-nineteenth century the bourgeoisie were apparent everywhere. You met them in theatres and restaurants, in churches and clubs, on beaches and river boats, in woods and parks, often walking arm in arm, dressed in respectable outfits and crowned by ridiculous hats. They sent their children to reputable schools, took respectable vacations, and worked in clean but arduous jobs. They owned property, both fixed and portable, and looked aghast at the radicals and socialists who threatened to take it away. They believed in marriage and the family, in decency, domesticity, and deference to the law. They stare at us now from picture postcards with eyes that are both proud and shy, upholding the moral order even while paddling in the sea. We glimpse their world in the stuffy interiors of Vuillard, in the fêtes galantes of Renoir, in the picnic scenes of Seurat, and it is a safe and domesticated world, and also a world tinged by romantic sadness.

In the eyes of their intellectual observers, however, the bourgeoisie were symbolic and exotic creatures, the subject of elaborate theories and fairy tales. Marx invented a world-historical role for them, Flaubert set out to disconcert them, and Matthew Arnold denounced them as the "Philistine class." They were the perfect foil for wit, exuberance, and iconoclasm, and for a hundred years following The Communist Manifesto of 1848 they filled an evident dramatic need. For the bohemian artist the bourgeoisie were visible, shockable, and obviously bad. They justified art as no class before had justified it, by being the defenseless target of abuse and satire.

For the last 50 years, however, the bourgeoisie have been slipping quietly away. Those who seem to fit the bill from the property-owning point of view don't always dress as they should or uphold the right kind of domestic values. Church attendance has fallen off, along with visits to theatre and restaurant. Parks and beaches are populated by people who show no respect for bourgeois dress or bourgeois manners, and the idea that there are bourgeois values, connected to marriage, home, and family, has only a scant chance of survival in a world where more and more people see marriage as a burden, children a bore, and property not for sharing.  (Roger Scruton, Shocking the Bourgeoisie)

Scruton goes on to argue that the bourgeoisie is now dead - it was killed off during the 1960s.xlix  He is partly right.l  The bourgeoisie still exists.  Indeed, in many ways it is stronger and more pervasive than ever before, although there have been a significant change to the way it thinks and behaves.  Its values and styles of life have been transformed; it has lost its faith in Christianity, and has acquired a new all-encompassing world view; one that is an amalgam of a vestigial Christian morality, economic determinism, and a naturalistic religion that legitimises society by grounding it in nature and by extension the human body - the individual’s own sensuous desires now trump collective  The individual is queen and society is her servant.  The result is a class-based society suffused with populism where differences in culture are minimal, though still significant.lii  Today it is The People not God who legitimate the social order.  So much the worse for art! 

The bourgeoise has changed.liii  So too have the intellectuals.  At some point in the 20th century they became bureaucrats.  You think I’m joking?  Consider this description by J.G. Merquior.

Système de la Mode constitutes the summit of Barthesian semio-technics.  No book of his is so patently the work of the dutiful structuralist, the painstaking scrutiniser of a corpus, the slave to an abstruse taxonomic terminology.  Here is the semiocrat - a technician of semiology fully besotted by the scientistic mirage…  (From Prague to Paris: A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought)

Here was the academic in the heyday of the institutional bureaucracies. During the 1960s they were to suffer an ideological assault that to a large extent forced them to go underground - today they continue to run society but pretend to serve The People.liv  In his writings Barthes embodies the three (institutional) cultures that existed during his mature career; a structuralist phase was followed by the hedonism of the mid sixties; which was later replaced by a literary libertarianism that was to eventually produce the dictatorship of the

But Barthes also refuses to countenance any assumption that ‘objective’ inner meaning are present in the texts themselves, waiting to be discovered, deciphered or unveiled by us.  The metaphor for fallacious inner signification comes from Barthes himself: ‘If until now we have regarded the text as a species of fruit with a kernel (an apricot, for example) the flesh being the form and the stone the content, it would be better to see it as an onion, a construction of layers (or levels, or systems) whose body contains finally no heart, no kernel, no secret, no irreducible principle, nothing except the infinity of its envelopes which envelop nothing other than the unity of its own surfaces.’

The first impressive use of the onion metaphor in post-war thought was, I think, made by the late Hannah Arendt, who in her celebrated work The Origins of Totalitarianism described totalitarian regimes as Stalinist police states where real power dwells in the heart of the bureaucratic onion, in the KGB rather than in the outer, visible surface of the state.  Barthes does it the other way round: he makes the onion into the symbol of a centreless structure.  Ironically, a metaphor devised to grasp the quintessence of oppression became an emblem of the liberation of the signifier.  (Merquior)

Is it so ironic?  Barthes is describing a literary text as if it were an actual bureaucracy where the critic is a senior administrator in a very tall hierarchy.  In such a position the employee only deals with the formal aspects of the organisation; for the products are manufactured far below at ground level; while the substantive decisions are made by the CEO on the floors above.lvi  Such an employee exists solely in a world of procedures and institutional ritual, and has no contact with the reality outside the firm.lvii  The result?  They work in an essentially abstract, essentially fictional, environment.lviii  

By the late 1950s the academic had become a bureaucrat, and the culture of the bureaucracy had infused his modes of thought.  Barthes was not a deep thinker - semiology is an approach that thrives on surface - and it was inevitable that he would overly influenced by his time and place.lix  In his case his work is a validation of three epistemeslx in the middle to late twentieth century - the rigid bureaucratic model based on the state; the middle class revolt of the 1960s, which was to lead to a more fluid bureaucracy suffused with the ideals and working practices of corporate capitalism.lxi  Michael Billig describes the result.

Around the world, universities no longer match the old image of unworldly tutors, sitting in common rooms and engaging in intellectual chit-chat over glasses of sherry.  Instead, modern universities are businesses with constant competition between institutions, between disciplines and between individuals.  In common with managers working in other industries, university managers today see it as their job to extract ever great productivity from the employees of the institutions which they manage (and to remove insufficiently productive elements from their workforce).  Given that universities are being run-on ‘business lines’, it is little wonder that some observers have described higher education today as ‘academic capitalism’, with university managers acting like venture capitalists.  (Learn to Write Badly; How to Succeed in the Social Sciences)lxii

Intellectuals on the whole are not artists; and with the expansion of the universities, which has transformed most of them into academics, they have become even less so.  The source of their thought is not internal to themselves; and they rely too much on external influences to give meaning to their work.lxiii  The result is an over-intellectualisation of their objects of study, whose peculiarities are removed to make them fit within the narrow confines of a theory or classificatory system, of the sort described by Merquior.lxiv  To give an art-object meaning bureaucratic reason must generalise it.  Only this generalisation is regarded as knowledge.  And yet…most of these abstractions are not newly minted.  The typical intellectual fills his mind with preconceived ideas which he then rearranges into pleasing patterns; the fewer the number the more likely to produce a religious faith; of which there have been many since Christianity was replaced by Secularism at the end of the 19th century.  The last 120 years a time rich in religious creativity.  There have been so many sects! of which the more well known include Fascism, Communism, Freudianism, Structuralism, deconstruction, and Evolutionary Psychology.  At the present time Neuroscience seems to be crystallising into the latest evangelical revival.lxv Each new faith has its few years (a decade on average?) of fame, when it captures many of the brightest minds of a generation, before it fades away to leave a remnant army of disciples; and a few good ideas on the shelves of secondhand book shops.lxvi

Everything is Just Like You is less an essay in criticism than a distillation of conventional wisdom, some of it now fifty years old.

One reason why Barthes gave up the Formalist attempt to establish a narrative langue of which every récit is a parole was precisely his fear that success in that operation would revive the old organicist myth of a structure peculiar to a particular work.  Thus the work he wanted to open up would close up again, again possess a signified secret.  Such closure he would condemn as ideological, the consequence of false assumptions, occidental and endoxal, about the nature of signs.  Our business as moderns is to read in order to maximise plurality, not in order to understand secrets.  (Frank Kermode, Essays in Fiction)

Barthes’ analysis, which doesn't allow for the uniqueness of a work of art, actually encourages the application of ready-made ideas to all works of literature (and of course film).  Why?  Because to think up new ideas and look at works of art from fresh perspectives is an extraordinarily difficult task; one which requires the critic to have a sensibility similar to that of the artist.  Since only a few academics have such a sensibility most will lack the gift of aesthetic insight, and so be unable to generate a “plurality” of meanings; instead they will rely on fashionable ideas to elucidate the novels and movies they are employed to “research”.  At the time Barthes was writing “ideology” was the big idea; and in France you could not be a respectable intellectual if you did not attack the bourgeoisie.  Little surprise, then, that he should condemn traditional literature as ideological; the only good stuff modern fiction, itself a self-conscious provocation against what were assumed to be the middlebrow tastes of the middle classes.  

But academics rarely look at themselves.  So intelligent.  So knowledgeable.  So confident in their own positions they use their omnipresent irony to ignore the dark corners of their psyches.  Nothing can get past these characters!  Or so they think.  Their minds are like the porters who guard the gates to a Cambridge college…

…gates that remain open to the sounds and sights of the street and…to the tourists who will insist on walking up the private staircases.  

Then there is the clever intruder who eludes detection….

Ideas are not generated solely within the universities.  Many come from the world outside; although something curious happens when they enter the college grounds. Abstract thought applies a filter that leaves the ideas completely independent of their original influences.  An illusion, of course.  Although these abstractions do have their own reality. For the process of abstraction is an event in itself; one that tends to emphasise the formal aspects of the source material.  Such a purification is largely impervious to the academics themselves, who, depending on taste, will come to treat either the filter (the method of abstraction) or the product (the resulting formalisations) as the only reality.  When Barthes began his critical career the mass media was beginning to take off, creating a world made up almost entirely of signs.  He, like many second-order intellectuals who are overly influenced by their environment,lxvii allowed this new media to determine his thought; his oeuvre suffused with the mindset of the fashion magazine.  In Barthes we have a critic who would reduce literature to advertising copy.lxviii This rebel against his age turns out on closer analysis to be its victim.  

I should conclude here, having used Mr Kite’s essay to look more closely into the nature of modern academic criticism.  I have established my argument.  I have erected my building in place of the old; which I had hoped to demolish, and to replace with something both truer and more beautiful.  In the process I have been unfair to Mr Kite; his words used only to blow up a crumbling office block.  Although to compare his essay to high explosive is too large a conceit.  A gentler image is required: his paragraphs are the trucks that remove the rubble from the demolition site.  

To conclude now is to be unfair to Mr Kite, who is no mere cypher of establishment criticism.  There are times when he has his own things to say, and it would be unjust to ignore them.

For Hélène, like other adult survivors of the war, Boulogne sits uneasily under a fading superimposition of the vanished city.  Yet the glossy surfaces of the new are inhospitable to ghosts.  In an environment in which things can no longer function as hard evidence of the past, having perished under the bombs or become incommunicable through lack of context, she is forced to verify her memories through the most slippery of means: the recollections of other people.  And here we see most clearly why Resnais insisted on the importance of “imagination” over “memory”.  The tragedy of the film is that everyone in it walks around encased in their own “sheet of the past”, to use Deleuze’s phrase, and points of contact are few and dubious.  Hélène’s own tragedy is to look for verification in Alphonse, a man purely dedicated to self-serving fictions, a veritable sponge of stories - invented, lived, overheard, it doesn’t matter, all are equal.

This is excellent stuff.  Even though I interpret the film differently.  In my original piece I suggested that the past arrives too soon for Hélène and Bernard to assimilate it into the present; Alphonse and Ernest appearing in Boulogne before the heroine’s feelings have faded safely away.  It is thus not true that everyone is “encased in their own ‘sheet of the past’”, except in the banal sense that none of us can exist outside our own personal histories. The tragedy is that the truth of the past enters into lives that are not ready to receive it.  Hélène made a mistake.  In a moment of weakness she invited Alphonse to Boulogne.  Maybe she had lost too much money at the casino.  Maybe sales were poor that month.  Maybe she had gone to bed with Roland de Smoke only to find that she did not love him.  Depressed she remembered a time when she was in love.  She has an idea.  She decides to invite her old lover to stay… There is a hole in this movie, and we must use our own imaginations to fill it.lxix

Let us end with Mr Kite.  It is our way of apologising to him.  Here he is on top form.

For me, the most moving moment in this film occurs in the final scene between Hélène and Bernard.  His love for his step-mother has to now only emerged in guarded and prickly form, but spontaneously he offers the rarest gift to be found in Muriel - a shared memory, the night she came to him during the bombing.  The details don’t exactly match: Bernard remembers snow falling on his crib, Hélène says no, no, it was rain.  He doesn’t agree and he doesn't argue, he simply lets the matter stand, willing to let their imaginations touch for just that instant. 

Thank you Mr Kite. Thank you!lxx

i.  See the articles by Roger Scruton and John Hyman (who writes about what he describes as V.S. Ramachandran’s Baywatch theory of art).

ii.  For a Frenchman there is something very English about Proust: he is an empiricist like David Hume, who believed the mind was constituted by a dense pattern of association of ideas.

iii.  See M.D. Vernon’s The Psychology of Perception; a very old book now.  The argument of this book, which neuroscience appears to support, is that the mind tidies up what it receives immediately on receiving it. Memory then adds additional layers of simplification to a mental representation that the mind itself has already created.

We must also make a distinction between the details stored in the memory and the value our mind places upon them.  Often this value, especially if the remembered event is extremely painful or pleasurable, will be more important for us than its actual details.  Then over time this value can become linked to abstract ideas that replace the specifics of the event itself.  The past thus becomes a real fiction that the mind creates for its own purposes.

Knowing very little about neuroscience I am aware that too often what I am actually writing about is the oversimplified popularisations of the discipline.  However, I need to put the mind back in so as to emphasise how these characters wilfully create their own stories; for without this understanding we will not comprehend this film.

iv.  But what if I am wrong about the workings of the mind?  What if all my statements are false?  It doesn’t matter.  If Resnais had similar views when he made this movie my arguments are still correct.  It is a nice irony: a false view of the mind may actually be better at elucidating Muriel than a correct one!  To bring in neuroscience is thus a waste of time; unless, that is, it adds something genuinely interesting to the analysis. 

v.  Though no longer so strikingly new.  Even during the peak of this new criticism there was something shopworn about it:

In the time of senile modernisms, neo-formalist trends in criticism espoused versions of modernist doxa and took over a large part of the academic study of literature (now the habitat of ninety per cent of literary criticism) by institutionalising teaching as research based on the massive employment of ready-made methods… Prolonged exposure to literature proper dwindles, whereas literary theory and critical methodology are swallowed up by the ton.  This grotesque predicament is aggravated by the fact that most students in today’s mass universities do not seem to bring to higher learning a decent literary culture acquired before their graduate years, as was still the case with the tiny bands of literature students when the subject was trusted to philology-trained dons who knew little or no literary theory but a lot about poems, novels, plays and essays. (J.G. Merquior, From Paris to Prague; A Critique of Structuralist and Post-Structuralist Thought.  Emphasis in the original.)

vi.  According to Frank Kermode Barthes began as a bastion of underlying order - he was an orthodox French structuralist - before he turned into a semiological anarchist.  Kermode argues that between these two stages there was a moment of perfect balance.  It was around 1963.

Here I am reminded of a lucid observation made by Barthes some years ago, before he developed his later method of analysis.  ‘A work of literature,’ he said then, ‘or at least of the kind that is normally considered by the critics (and this itself may be a possible definition of “good” literature) is neither ever quite meaningless (mysterious or “inspired”) nor ever quite clear; it is, so to speak, suspended meaning; it offers itself to the reader as a declared system of significance, but as a signified object it eludes his grasp.  This kind of dis-appointment or de-ception… inherent in the meaning explains how it is that a work of literature has such power to ask questions of the world… without, however, supplying any answers.’  Here we have the nub of the matter.  Barthes’s insight owes something to the nouveau roman; a consciousness that deception (in the French sense, ‘disappointment’) was an inherent property of narratives made Robbe-Grillet design his novels to demonstrate it, and the necessity of déception to the modern novel  is an important theme of Pour un nouveau roman.  Robbe-Grillet himself allowed that what he was doing was revolutionary only if one made the mistake of assuming that the ‘rules’ of the novel were established in Balzac’s day.  Barthes’s developing mystique of écriture led him beyond the position; in 1963 he still, I think, had it right.

The reply to Barthes’ position seems almost too childishly simple: meaning is suspended because a significant part of that meaning lies outside the words.  Literature using language to capture the atmosphere of real events - whether they be things, people, or thoughts or feelings.  If the performance is successful we feel and judge that the rendition is right.  Barthes, an academic critic par excellence, here reveals his limitations (and the limitations of so much academic criticism): for him literature is only language, and thus there can be no reality outside the page.  No wonder the “signified object…eludes his grasp.”  If it doesn’t exist in words it therefore cannot exist. Simple logic proves that he is right.

Note his “possible” definition of “good” literature - it is critics not writers who decide. Barthes belonged to an educational establishment that was acquiring a lot of power, and was seeking to take over the society. 1968 was to stop all that.*  Academics then took their revenge by demolishing the society’s legitimising ideas; which included denying the essential nature of literature itself.  Impotent outside the academy they became totalitarians inside it.

*See the references to Bourdieu in my The Temperate Zone.

vii.  This was part of a wider intellectual atmosphere that was more concerned with the internal consistency of existing systems (of life, of art and of thought) than with change over time.  This was reflected in economics with its ideas about equilibrium; in anthropology with its concern with functionalism; while in philosophy there was Wittgenstein’s later theories about language communities.  The most extreme intellectual response was French structuralism, an intellectual movement that was not interested in time and change at all.*  

* See J.G. Merquior; and Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace; particularly the second programme, which concentrates on the concept of the self-regulating ecosystem.

viii.  This mirrors the technique of the nouveau roman: a plot is replaced by an idea, and it is this idea that structures the novel.

ix.  Compare Mr Kite’s, “bearing nothing more definite than an indistinct aura of age and history, set down as if at random next to other objects and competing claims”, with Derrida’s description of a text:

[It is] no longer a finished corpus of writing, some content enclosed in a book or its margins, but a differential network, a fabric of traces, referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces. (from J.G. Merquior)

There is a terrible irony here.  Muriel is part of an art movement that influenced Post-structuralism, whose academic success has produced a theoretical climate that now reinterprets the original influences through their own theories.  The result?  The eccentricities of these films, which were in part created to prevent discursive interpretation,  are methodically smoothed away - just like the memory machine Mr Kite quotes at the beginning of his piece - in formulaic theoretical speculations about them.  We enter a Georgian town house and walk into an enormous living room.  We look out at a busy street.  And…we are at first confused.  We cannot… Oh!  We see it now. We are looking at the traffic, the trees and the people through frosted-glass. 

x.  See Neal Ascherson’s review of Richard Cobb’s book on occupied France.

xi.  The similarities between Resnais, Barthes and Sollers suggests a shared culture, of which the nouveau roman appears to be the main intellectual source.  We could argue that Frank Kermode’s book is the best commentary on Muriel, although it doesn’t discuss it at all….

Although to properly understand these characters we need some knowledge of 19th century French poetry and its retreat into a linguistic occultism (a literary tradition that is very noticeable in Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero).

xii.  If here and there some interpretations are strained, especially as he sticks to narrow psychoanalytic keys, there is no gainsaying that by and large On Racine is a masterpiece of intelligent criticism, doubtless the fruit of Barthes’s long familiarity…with drama and, more specifically, with classical tragedy… [It] signalled a genuine breakthrough in our understanding of the underlying mechanisms in the plays of France’s greatest poet….René Matignon… said that it did for Racine what Malraux’s Ministry of Culture was doing for the historical monuments of Paris’s architecture: a ‘ravalement’, the cleaning of surfaces that restore the beauty of the stone work of Notre Dame or the Louvre.  And so it did.  (J.G. Merquior)

xiii.  It is why the writer-critics like V.S. Pritchett and Virginia Woolf write the best criticism; which consists not of close reading - a topflight academic can easily beat them in this - but in the creation of sensations in the reader that are comparable to those evoked by the greatest literature.  

But being only a quotation it makes the different thoughts appear too much isolated; for in the context Velchaninov, as he broods over the blood-stained razor, passes over his involved and crowded train of thought without a single hitch, just, in fact, as we ourselves are conscious of thinking when some startling fact has dropped into the pool of our consciousness.  From the crowd of objects pressing upon our attention we elect now this one, now that one, weaving them inconsequently into our thought; the associations of a word perhaps make another loop in the line, from which we spring back again to a different section of our main thought, and the whole process seems both inevitable and perfectly lucid.  But if we try to construct our mental processes later, we find that the links between one thought and another are submerged.  The chain is sunk out of sight and only the leading points emerge to mark the course.  Alone among writers Dostoevsky has the power of reconstructing these most swift and complicated states of mind, of re-thinking the whole train of thought in all its speed, now as it flashed into light, now as it lapses into darkness; for he is able to follow not only the vivid streak of achieved thought but to suggest the dim and populous underworld of the mind’s consciousness where desires and impulses are moving blindly beneath the sod.  Just as we awaken ourselves from a trance of this kind by striking a chair or a table to assure ourselves of an external reality, so Dostoevsky suddenly makes us behold, for an instant, the face of his hero, or some object in the room.  (Virginia Woolf, Books and Portraits)

xiv.  Many are the sentences I snuggle down in - most of them occur in the second section of Mythologies - to feel their warmth and comfort. We are like lovers who agree on a great deal but who yet see the fundamentals differently; although the differences are so small that they may appear invisible to the outsider.  In this case what I ascribe to a culture Barthes attributes to a semiological system, an ascription which I believe to be a serious mistake - what he is actually describing is an ideology.  To make matters worse Barthes then confuses this ideology with a media system; he thinks that they are the same thing.  They are not.  Samuel Johnson realised this a long time ago:

A journalist, above most other men, ought to be acquainted with the lower orders of mankind, that he may be able to judge what will be plain and what will be obscure; what will require a comment, and what will be apprehended without explanation.  He is to consider himself not as writing to students or statesmen alone, but to women, shopkeepers, and artisans, who have little time to bestow upon mental attainments, but desire, upon easy terms, to know how the world goes; who rises, and who falls; who triumphs, and who is defeated. (Of the Duty of a Journalist, in The Major Works)

The media simplifies reality for people who are not really interested in it.  If Barthes were to do a proper semiological analysis of the media he would have to treat it as a self-enclosed system largely insulated from the rest of the society.  Once such an analysis is done a comparison could then be made with the prevailing ideology, which is largely determined by the underlying culture, itself formed by history.

Since Barthes wrote his seminal book the mass media has helped transform the bourgeoisie into the simple-minded class of shopkeepers and artisans that Samuel Johnson describes.  The media was not the tool of the bourgeoisie but the weapon that was to eventually destroy it.  Though its decline started before the 1950s… 

The British, and especially the English, middle class developed towards the end of the 19th century a power which even the most refined of contemplative religions have never matched – the power to spend a lifetime doing absolutely nothing, while remaining kindly, civil, relaxed and serene. This ability, exercised during the first half of this century while the inheritances amassed by more restless forebears slowly dwindled, is now, I think, extinct. My own grandfather, a talented young doctor, rose from his breakfast table after reading the letter informing him that he had come into an adequate competence, unscrewed the brass plate on his door and placed it silently in the dustbin. The rest of his life was spent fishing in well-chosen but not glamorous lochs and rivers or going for walks. He died in his late nineties exactly at the moment when his inheritance, by contemporary standards very large, ran out. I never knew a more good-natured, shrewd or patient man. (Neal Ascherson, reviewing Richard Cobb’s Still Life)

xv.  From the extremely little I’ve read of Derrida I would say that he doesn’t really think.  Instead, he plays with concepts as a poet plays with words.  A good example is given in David Lehman’s Signs of the Times.

xvi.  There are many examples in Books and Portraits.

xvii.  Do not misunderstand me.  I do not want to kill off the author and replace her by the critic.  No!  The great critic must transcend the author by being as good as she.  Such transcendence to occur only if the critic is sympathetic to the original work.  Only then will he absorb it into his soul and so be able to recreate it within new forms.

xviii.  Merquior’s book contains many examples.  In a classic work E.E. Evans-Pritchard describes a completely different cognitive world:

…he expresses his thought in terms of actual and particular situations.  He says ‘a buffalo charges’, ‘a tree falls’, ‘termites are not making their seasonal flight when they are expected to do’, and so on.  Herein he is stating empirically ascertained facts.  But he also says ‘a buffalo charged and wounded so-and-so’, ‘a tree fell on so-and-so and killed him’, ‘my termites refuse to make their flight in numbers worth collecting but other people are collecting theirs all right’, and so on.  He tells you these things are due to witchcraft, saying in each instance, ‘So-and-so has been bewitched.’  The facts do not explain themselves or only partly explain themselves.  They can only be explained fully if one takes witchcraft into consideration….  [Although: since the] Azande recognise plurality of causes, and it is the social situation that indicates the relevant one, we can understand why the doctrine of witchcraft is not used to explain every failure and misfortune. (Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande)

If the humanities are to survive as an independent intellectual force its proponents need to think like the Azande.

xix. Or perhaps we should say: explicated too much in the wrong way.  Here is Virginia Woolf doing it to perfection:

The stories themselves, in their inconclusiveness and intimacy, appear to be the result of a chance meeting on a lonely road.  Fate has sent these travellers across our path; whoever they may be, it is natural to stop and talk, and as they will never come our way again it is possible to say all kinds of things that we do not say to friends.  The English reader may have had something of the same experience when isolated on board ship on a sea voyage.  From the surrounding emptiness, from the knowledge that they will soon be over, those meetings have an intensity, as if shaped by the hand of an artist, which long preserves their significance in memory.

Compare these reflections with those of Frank Kermode on ordinary and “naive” readers:

Yet to such readers stories are second nature; they can ‘forget’ they’re reading a story, or anyway be unwilling to disinhabit it, put it down.  It is hardly a figure of speech to say that they live in its world; if they ignore inconvenient clues, conflicts of interpretative possibilities, problematical verticals of interpretation which are not identifiable as the familiar ones of character, setting, cause, and so forth, so they do, and so we do, in the daily acts of life… (Essays in Fiction)

These remarks are part of an argument to show that even normal reading requires interpretation. The implication, though, is clear: the ordinary reader mistakenly believes stories are real.  Only an academic could say this!  An artist like Virginia Woolf writes about Chekhov as if he is describing reality.  For her his characters are real people.*  Of course the sophisticated reader is also aware of the literary texture that these characters inhabit; but rather than taking away the novel’s reality this awareness adds further layers of complexity which engage the intellectual faculties to a far greater degree than is usual.  The artist sees both the people and the narrative house in which they spend their lives.

An academic only sees the words.  What Kermode has forgotten is that to write about a book is to create it.  The problematics he identifies are inventions of academic criticism; which in themselves are no bad thing, provided they are handled with tact and insight.  Criticism should contain aesthetic feeling. Unfortunately such feeling is rare in modern academic circles.  Too often the academic critic turns a novel into a collection of sentences which he then interrogates at his leisure.  An author’s words, the words of a Thomas Hardy or a George Eliot, thus becoming the victim of his discursive and analytic intellect.  Sometimes the interrogation is successful - there are many wonderful things in Essays on Fiction -, but too often we witness the exercise of brute force for brute force’s own sadist sake; J. Hillis Miller’s deconstructive reading of Wordsworth’s A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal (summarised in Signs of the Times) is a good example of the torturer’s wilful technique.

*In a documentary about his life and work Harold Pinter talks about watching his characters perform as he invents them.  Art is real!  Anna Karenina really does exist.

† Virginia Woolf herself, when comparing the realistic elements of modern fiction with the fantasies of the Elizabethans, qualifies my argument:

We are not so purblind as to suppose that a man because his name is Smith and he lives at Liverpool is therefore ‘real’.  We know indeed that this reality is a chameleon quality, the fantastic becoming as we grow used to it often the closest to the truth, the sober the furthest from it, and nothing proving a writer’s greatness more than his capacity to consolidate his scene by the use of what, until he touched them, seemed wisps of cloud and threads of gossamer.  Our contention merely is that there is a station, somewhere in mid-air, whence Smith and Liverpool can be seen to the best advantage; that the great artist is the man who knows where to place himself above the shifting scenery; that while he never loses sight of Liverpool he never sees it in the wrong perspective.  The Elizabethans bore us, then, because their Smiths are all changed to dukes, their Liverpools to fabulous islands and palaces in Genoa.  Instead of keeping a proper poise above life they soar miles into the empyrean, where nothing is visible for long hours at a time but clouds at their revelry, and a cloud landscape is not ultimately satisfactory to human eyes.  The Elizabethans bore us because they suffocate our imaginations rather than set them to work. (The Common Reader 1

Qualifies but does not eradicate.  For while the characters themselves might not be ‘real’ they are expected to be true - to reality!  That is: they are expected to have a certain substance.  Detach words from what they denote and you produce the cloud like effects Woolf describes, and the novel becomes the work of the imagination only.  

Touching on the paradox of art Woolf is sliding between two contradictory ideas - characters are not real; characters do represent reality - and doesn't clarify them as much as we would like.  There is the reality of a person in time and space; this is their physical presence.  Then there is the reality of a character that lives only in the minds of human beings; this we can call their metaphysical existence. In our minds such characters (the characters of a novel or film) can be as real as any person who is not corporeally present. One’s brother and sister, one’s lover…when they reside only in thought and memory they exhibit many of the qualities of Dorothea or Jude.  Muriel illustrates this point perfectly: when a person exists only in the past they are turned into a fiction. 

We can take this idea further.  Most people are fictions to us.  Indeed, they are very poor fictions, sharing something of the vague cloud-like forms Woolf describes as bad art.  Dorothea is more real, because more present to my imagination, than Terry Eagleton’s mother, who exists in me only as word and idea.♦︎1  Of course, when present a person’s material existence imposes itself upon us, and we feel their personality; producing an atmosphere that incorporates their inner being, the scene between us, and our own perceptions; and it is this atmosphere (an atmosphere of a felt presence) that the work of art tries to capture.

Art is concerned with the reality that is both internal to humans and exists in the invisible spaces between them.♦︎2  The outer forms are necessary decoration - because atmosphere is embodied in material forms -, but their mere description is not art.  To dismiss characters as not being real is to mistake the material reality for a metaphysical reality where both art and life exist on equal terms.

♦︎1  Why pick on Eagleton? Because in classic academic style he argues that writers only manipulate metaphors. He is the radical sceptic who would destroy what he doesn't really understand. Such a bore.

♦︎2 The favourite saying of Reinhard (In Die Zweite Heimat) is that all the important things in life are invisible.  How right he is!

xx.  Michael Billig is very good on this practice; one that turns activities into things by way of an extreme abstraction which relies on a linguistic sleight of hand.  Contrast the modern academic obsession with nouns with Max Weber’s distrust of them:

[And his] tendency to treat all concepts of collectivities or large social aggregates as convenient labels for tendencies of action.  Wherever possible, he avoided nouns, and hence the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ (Whitehead), by using verbs or ‘active nouns,’ though there is no English equivalent for the latter. (Reinhard Bendix).

xxi.  In The Gipsy’s Baby I comment on how the essence of language is to generalise experience.  One could argue that once the academy became obsessed with language it was inevitable that they would no longer seek to experience the particular qualities of a novel (or poem or essay) because language itself would prevent the possibility of such experiential activity.  

What is literature?  It is the use of language to overcome the abstractions inherent in language itself, and it does this by evoking a reality outside the words.  Much of late 20th century literary criticism denies that this attempt is possible.  Indeed, it accepts defeat, and surrenders to the enemy.  No longer interested in the actuality of literature it merely analyses the words; from which it demands a plurality of readings.  The results are inevitable.  Academics coming to prefer the proliferation of concepts to the effects produced by our engagement with each and every novel; the theories of Derrida smothering the peculiar brilliances of Caught by Henry Green; which can easily be transformed into a parable about the power of the masculine gaze - he writes so well about the naked female body.  

What am I saying?  That there is a sensuous component to our mental capacity which literature is somehow able to touch. In contrast, academic criticism merely plays with mental representations.  Thus the odd paradox: the most materialist of critics are actually the most mentalist.  Why?  Because they reduce literature to an idea, whether it be Freudian or Marxist or the latest “hard-nosed” intellectual fashion.  It is thus no surprise to find Terry Eagleton arguing that writers merely invent metaphors and similes.  Such an idea automatically follows from his Marxism; an ideology which by its very nature turns all reality into concepts.*

* A narrower point: we can’t help think that lurking deep inside Eagleton’s thought is the antediluvian idea of the base-superstructure split which sees culture as the epiphenomenon of economic forces.

xxii.  For a brilliant analysis of how the vagueness of abstract concepts is used as a cover for academic ignorance see Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly.

xxiii.  See footnote iii in my Couldn't You Have Waited? for the Hitchcock reference.  Also… Do you remember the name of Vertigo’s (essentially fictional) heroine? Yes.  It is Madeleine!  

xxiv.  Or to put it another way: Hitchcock is concerned with the mind (when it goes astray); Resnais with our feelings (when they are not fulfilled).

xxv.  In Jealousy the plot has been removed completely so that we feel the obsession in its most pure state; and this is achieved through the microscopic attention to details; the shifting back and forth between significant and insignificant events; and the creation of a fiction to fill the gaps that cannot be known, such as the scene in the hotel room between the husband’s wife and a friend.  Because we don’t see or hear the husband, but read the signs as he would read them, the emotion of the situation comes to us directly.  In this novel we are the jealous husband! 

Is Jealousy the best example of what Barthes calls “neutral writing” in his Writing Degree Zero?  Did Robbe-Grillet write the novel as a response to this book?

xxvi.  This is the argument of Denis Donoghue: there is a mystery to all art that exists outside language; but the modern media and academic criticism explains away this mystery by reducing the arts to ideas (labels would perhaps be a better word), facts and theories.  

Seen in this light we could argue that the nouveau roman was an attempt to escape such discursive explanation (and to escape the ever-expanding professoriat) by leaving a space in which the reader would use their own sensibility to intuit the secret inside each novel.  These were writers who wanted to be read by fellow artists.*  The irony is that this movement spawned an academic industry whose main assumptions are theorisations of their technique.  An artistic movement that began as an escape from the discursive tendencies of modern life thus became a body of theory that denied that such an escape was possible.  Then around 1967 Jacques Derrida pops up: all life is language!  The perverse result of these “high church” theories is to validate the “low church” appreciation of the arts which treats them merely as entertainment, not as a revealed truth about reality.

The most popular arts these days are those which provide the most direct access to their experiences.  The question of the relative value of the experiences doesn’t seem to be raised: it is as if what people want of any experience is chiefly its immediacy, and would settle for experiences which have that quality and nothing much else.  (Denis Donoghue, The Arts Without Mystery)

The interstitial space of art is being squeezed into oblivion between two walls that are moving ever closer together - between the feelings of Phyllis Jenkins, who proudly calls herself An Ordinary Reader, and the bureaucratic rationalism of Professor Reginald Hapless.  The poor artist is being squashed; he cries out in pain; but few hear him; and soon nobody will; his body crushed his breath is beginning to fade.…

* In a curious ending to a brilliant essay (The Patron and the Crocus in The Common Reader 1) Virginia Woolf argues that each age will throw up a patron (the ideal reader for whom the artist writes), and that in her time they needed to share the same “atmosphere” as the writer; going on to argue that they have a “maternal tie”; are even twins.  The suggestion seems to be that the reader has to be an artist too.  Alain Robbe-Grillet is of the same modernist mindset.  But he was late on the scene.  By the time he began writing the patron was changing; he was turning into the aloof mandarin who works in a large department in an expanding university; and whose morning routine begins with The Times crossword puzzle.

xxvii.  Which removes Barthes's original distinction between those novels are that closed and therefore limit interpretation (the 19th century classics of realism), and those that are open (all modern works) and allow for an infinite number of readings.

xxviii.  Although he qualifies this statement with “seeming” in the very next sentence he goes on to write: “[w]hat saves the film from this and sets up its unique tension is its parallel urge to dispersal and expansion”.  The film both is and is not overdetermined.  Like so much of this kind of criticism it prefers general abstractions to the particularities of each film; abstractions which, when we look at them carefully, have very little content; the reason why two opposed concepts can sit so safely side by side. We imagine two pensioners conversing happily together on a bus who contradict each other terribly when at home.

xix.  Frank Kermode was right.  Criticism should excite us.  Unfortunately too much of it is dull:

[Derrida’s] followers do tend to say the same thing about everything they choose to discuss - that those texts are ‘always already’ self-subverted, that they contain, in some occulted form, that which violates their ostensible meaning… (Essays on Fiction)

xxx.  See Merquior’s comments particularly on Barthes.

xxxi.  Neuroscience, or at least the popular version of it, seems to be a new form of behaviourism where the stimuli is produced within the mind itself.

xxxii.  See Marcel Proust’s comments on Sainte-Beuve in his By Way of Saint-Beuve.  Academic criticism has on the whole tended to prefer the technique of Sainte-Beuve to that of Proust, who regarded much of this great critic’s work as beside the point.  And he is surely right. But…if he is right…literature is…yes, the conclusion follows automatically…literature is hardly taught in today’s universities.

(Many of the essays in Kermode’s book deals with this issue of authorial intention; a problem that too many academics wish to solve by saying it does not exist.  This is a failing common to most intellectuals - what they can’t explain they dismiss as either unimportant or non-existent; a pseudo-problem at best.  Such insouciance about they don’t understand is what makes intellectuals so dangerous.)

xxxiii.  But…at the same time he is collecting evidence!  Because the behaviourist assumption is wrong (or at least grossly exaggerated) such a contradiction will always occur, because the mind will always insist on creeping back into the argument.

xxxiv.  This is one of the secrets of rationality.  By forcing us to concentrate on small aspects of reality - to go after truth in our small domains - it turns enquiry into an obsession, which by its very nature makes our thoughts (and our behaviour when we try to enact these thoughts) irrational. 

Most of us are not aware of this danger; and so we apply our “rational” findings to the rest of reality in the belief that we are using our common sense.  Eventually we encounter resistance.  Do we stop, reflect and change course?  Of course not!  We condemn our interlocutor for not accepting our lunacies.  For a good example read Richard Crockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83; a history of a mad gang of extremists that the author believes are sane and sensible people.

Max Weber was a wise man.  He noted that there are many different rationalities, all of which appear irrational to the outsider (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).  Most of us are unaware of this simple truth.  Only we are right, and therefore rational - today intelligence has replaced the sword when it comes to combats of honour.  But just as a heavy sword doesn’t make a honourable knight, neither does high intelligence produce a rational intellect; indeed, it can often lead to the most extreme imbecility; Samuel Johnson providing a marvellous example at the end of his The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia

xxxv.  Michael Billig is very good on the tendency of modern social psychology to play down or even erase the individual.  In part this is because the goal of experimental research is to make phenomena conform to significant statistical patterns; the overriding area of intellectual concern.

xxxvi.  We speculate… Many academics, I am sure, want Bernard to represent the film precisely because they believe he condemns Western civilisation.  Such an attitude reflecting the political posture of much university writing.  But I wonder… Is there another more personal reason for such an attitude? Underlying all this radical talk is there a huge resentment against the subjects these academics teach?  Literature and film are no longer pleasures but have become chores; their elucidation a means of employment only which has nothing to do with enlightenment; their own or other people’s.  It’s just a job, which increasingly resembles all other jobs (Michael Billig; MM McCabe; Marina Warner).  However, whereas we moan about the company and complain about our bosses they are in a far better position, for they can denounce and even destroy their masters - bang bang you’re dead Henry James. Ha! Ha! Ha!

xxxvii.  Later in his piece Mr Kite does refer to Bernard’s latent feelings for his step-mother.

xxxviii.  Although some reference to Alain Robbe-Grillet would be useful.  It is hard to believe that the repetitions and sudden jumps of attention and action that occur throughout Jealousy did not influence Resnais.

xxxix.  Maybe this is too strong.  However, references to “hysterical elaboration” and “pushed to excess” do suggest that this critic believes that Resnais does not take such mainstream techniques seriously.

xl.  Muriel seems a strange name for an Algerian woman - surely the soldiers didn’t torture and kill a pied-noire. If my suspicion is correct the name suggests a sentimental fiction.

xli.  A text, he argues, is not to be referred to a structural model, but understood as a series of invitations to the reader to structurate it.  It is a network of significations, of signifiants lacking transcendant signifiés, and a reader can enter it anywhere.  He must produce, not consume it; he must as it were write it; and in so far as it avoids external reference it may be called scriptible.  Classic texts he calls lisible; they lack the plurality of the scriptible, possessing meaning which can only be ideological, and in some respects, such as story, possessing also a directionality that must be avoided by the scriptible.  In other words, the lisible has local and provincial restrictions, the scriptible (of which no example is available) has not.  (Frank Kermode, Essays in Fiction)

Only the mind is free.  Because only in the mind can things exist that have no “external reference”.  It is the reason why the mind can create abstractions that have no connection to concrete reality.  Barthes, without really understanding what he is doing, has turned literature into a play of the mind; a mind that (and this may seem paradoxical but isn’t once we recognise the weakness of our rational faculty - it is merely an instrument for the organisation of new thought and not its source) is unduly influenced by pre-existing ideas.  In consequence Barthes’ “writing” of the text is easily transformed into copying: academics able to project the conceptual zeitgeist onto individual works of art they cannot recreate for themselves.  And indeed this is exactly what has occurred; the scriptible an excuse for fashionable nonsense and careerism (all detailed in David Lehman’s Signs of the Times; Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul De Man).  In contrast: the “local and provincial restrictions” of the lisible reduce abstraction, and through their very limits (through the fences and ditches that protect their meanings) force us to think for ourselves; because we have to think about their intractability to our prevailing ideas. 

Barthes has made a simple mistake, but one that destroys his entire intellectual edifice.  He mistakenly believes that a single cause must produce a single effect; the author’s intention transferred complete into the reader’s consciousness.  But we know this is not the case. One cause can produce many effects; their number increasing with the power of the original force.  Of course he is prone to make this mistake because he has replaced the emotional content of literature with its mere meaning (about which he has some philosophically naive ideas).*1

Barthes’ ideas about ideology and “directionality” are other serious weaknesses.  His use of ideology suggests there is a single, coherent and self-contained ideology that encompasses all the classic 19th century novelists.*2  This is the danger of abstractions, which always try to tidy up the messiness of the world; Barthes projecting onto Balzac, Flaubert and Co. an ideology none of them actually had so as to give his own mind a rational order.  At most they had a shared culture, which is a far more vague and indeterminate influence.*3  Then having created a fiction he condemns them for holding it.  He is the wife who after choosing her husband’s clothes criticises his dress sense.  

“Directionality”?  This is a technical term which seems to relate to plot.  However, very few of the great novels can be reduced to their plot lines; their greatness residing in how they transcend the meagre outlines of the story.  One danger of consciously avoiding plot is that the writer replaces it with an idea, which is far a more narrow and discursive way to organise material.  “Directionality” is a minor problem whose solution is a catastrophe.

*1 We remember Kermode’s Rubicon of 1963… Barthes was more cautious in his Mythologies; in that book he does recognise that one image can have many meanings.

*2 His approach is more qualified in Writing Degree Zero, where he argues for a break around 1850; this separates Balzac from Flaubert.  After the revolutions of 1848 the bourgeoisie lose their confidence in the universality of their class and its ideas; art reflects this change, and reveals its essentially bourgeois nature, by retreating into its own arcane craftsmanship.†

† Barthes argument that 19th century artists talked radical but behaved like the middle classes is an echo of my theory about modern intellectuals advocating liberty and irrationalism while actually thinking like bureaucrats. 

*3 For an excellent example of the difference between the complicated reality and its ideological reconstruction see Jack Goody’s The Expansive Moment: Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970.  The book, which is a nuanced history of the British anthropological school, ends with a critical review of a highly ideological and narrow reading of this intellectual movement as a instrument of British colonialism and a victim of British empiricism.

xlii.  Hitchcock of course gives very good narrative reasons for his decision (see Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock, by François Truffaut).

xliii.  See my comments about Hitchcock’s influence on Chabrol in This is Love.  The French directors used Hitchcock’s techniques to create films where the thriller element is absorbed entirely into the texture of a character’s thoughts and feelings.  In a Hitchcock movie these techniques have a double function - as psychological texture and as plot. However, the plot tends to dominate; spoiling the overall atmosphere of these movies by disturbing it too mechanically.

xliv.  Proust’s masterpiece is an acute presentation of such a mind.

xlv.  This should not to be confused with conscious intention.  When we write the underlying structure often remains unknown to us until we are close to finishing it. And this applies to all kinds of creative work: see Alan Macfarlane’s video talk on writing a PHD, and then watch the delightful video essay on his working space.

xlvi.  Of course if we use the word “beast” literally I have made a faux pax; at least according to Mary Midgley, who argues that animals do not behave sadistically (Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature).

When used as a metaphor the meaning becomes the reverse of its literal sense; for to behave “like a beast” is in fact to act with the grossest inhumanity; which actually means…to act without any beast-like qualities at all!  To act “like a beast” is in fact to exhibit our specifically human characteristics in their most pure state.  Or to put it a little less controversially: it is to privilege the abstract mind over our feelings, so that the mental faculty alone determines our conduct.  

Some curious ideas emerge when we begin think of morality in this way.  A soldier who rapes and murders the wife of his enemy may act with such inhumanity; however, his actions arise from feelings that are all too human and beast-like - such as anger, fear, jealousy and revenge - that have left his control.  Such behaviour is less inhuman than that of a chief executive (or an intellectual) who treats individuals as abstract units, and then manipulates them in accordance with some formal model or theory.  Yet today such inhumane actions are accepted as normal; indeed are regarded as essential for the exercise of justice and trade.  For civilisation to function we have to repress our emotions and control our instincts; such control producing a civility that domesticates and improves us.*1  And yet…it is a dangerous business. If the abstractions are not tempered by a feeling for the particular case, and if theories are enacted that ignore the irrational elements of mankind, then what was once a civilising instrument becomes a tool of barbarism.  It is easy to dismiss a Jew, a Christian, a terrorist and a homophobe.  They are mere words that can be rubbed out without any thought at all.  And it is here that we have the paradox of Nazism and Bolshevism - they were religions of modern civilisation; their inhumanity stemming not from irrational and “primitive” hatreds but from their all too rational faculties. For reason comes in many guises; there are the subtleties of Nietzsche, which few can emulate, and then there are the pathological dogmatisms of Lenin, whose reasoning, albeit in much diluted forms, is common to modern man.  Indeed, the very ubiquity of such an impoverished rationality can make contemporary life both frustrating and precarious; at least for its victims.*2

Today such poor reasoning (which many consider the very acme of intelligence) is creating new abstractions for us to worship.  The greatest abstraction of all is humanity itself. This produces a world where the idea of the individual is celebrated but their actual presence is denied.  In The Order of Things Foucault endorsed this tragedy: Man, he believed, was a 19th century creation, and should be killed off as an epistemological mistake.  Although he got it the wrong way round - as an idea Man is stronger than he has ever been - Foucault expressed a penetrating insight into the condition of actual men and women in the modern period: the idea of individuals is erasing the reality of us real ones.*3

*1 In the workplace at least.  The most significant change since the 1950s is that irrationalism is encouraged outside of it, during our leisure hours.  And it is this split in the two sides of our lives - in the work and in the home - that has produced the peculiar society that we have today; one that exhibits its own odd tensions, as when the emotions are allowed into the office, and our free-time feelings are manipulated by bureaucratic reason.

*2 This is a different rationality again from the ordinary types of rough and ready reasoning that we practice in everyday life, and which Lévy-Bruhl mistakenly attributed solely to a primitive mentality.

The “savage” thinks rationally as we do in comparable situations, that is, he uses the rule-of-thumb logic that suffices for everyday use…. The net result of Lévy-Bruhl’s discussions… is to bring home once more the importance of social tradition in moulding individual responses to experience and to stress the overwhelming significance of irrational factors not in primitive, but in human thought. (Robert Lowie, The History of Ethnological Theory)

The strange ideas that accompany the “savage’s” religious or magical rituals (and which led thinkers like Lévy-Bruhl to believe that they were completely irrational) is the equivalent of the simple abstractions that the ordinary educated man and woman in the West gives to political, economic and social events.†1  These abstractions may have a greater factual foundation (to the magical and religious beliefs of pre-scientific societies) but their reception by the uninformed reader is very much the same.  Thus in today’s media discourse terrorism can be seen to produce the same kinds of thoughts in us as does black magic in the Azande. In both cases the cause is believed to lie in the bad thoughts of troublesome men; while the theories used to explain these nefarious activities are often incredible, even fantastic - e.g. it has been argued that terrorism is caused by a hatred of democracy and freedom; two abstract words that in themselves mean…nothing.†2

†1 In Evans-Pritchard’s discussion of particularly Pareto and Lévy-Bruhl (in A History of Anthropological Thought) we glimpse a borderland of thought that exists between the empiricism of everyday behaviour and the rigorous analysis of science.  It is this borderland, which for most people is populated with a small number of simple and obvious ideas which they believe true, that gives rise to the crazy theories of both “primitive” and “civilised” societies.  The intellectuals also believe in these ideas, but they elaborate upon them to create the most fantastic of theories, which often have little connection with the empirical reality; so that if Evans-Pritchard is right Durkheim’s theories on totemism are just as bizarre as the religious ideas of an Australian Aborigine. 

Only by standing outside the culture can we see that both the self-evident ideas and the complex theories built upon them are metaphysical constructions with little foundation in fact.  Inevitably, it is extremely difficult to do this in our own culture, even though we pride ourselves on our scientific objectivism; a trait which is actually quite rare; existing, as it does, only in quite restricted areas, such as in the best scholarship.  Just like the common Aborigine we live in a world made up of purely mental patterns that we passively absorb and believe are true (though today it is politics rather than religion that provides the material for much of this thinking). Indeed, because we spend a far greater part of our lives in this borderland of poorly understood but readily accepted ideas, it is possible that modern societies are more prone to such metaphysics than primitive ones. But we must be careful, for as Evans-Pritchard rightly comments: for the majority of people ideas of this kind occupy only a small part in their lives; usually during religious ritual (or, as Lowie notes, when someone is asked for a theoretical explanation for a particular phenomenon).  The one exception to this tendency is, of course, intellectuals.♦︎

♦︎ It seems probable that Lévy-Bruhl, like Tylor and Frazer before him, projected the mind of an intellectual back onto primitive man.  Lévy-Bruhl, though he thought otherwise, was actually writing about us.  It is those sophisticated men and women - the intellectuals - who are really the primitives!  His work can thus be seen as a rich source of data on this peculiar class of people.

It’s a very chilling thought because the only thing the Islamists like about modernity is modern weapons. And they’re going to get better and better at that. They’re also gaining on us demographically at a huge rate. A quarter of humanity now and by 2025 they’ll be a third. Italy’s down to 1.1 child per woman. We’re just going to be outnumbered.

Then having identified the enemy he describes the feelings they produce in him.

What can we do to raise the price of them doing this? There’s a definite urge – don’t you have it? – to say, ‘The Muslim community will have to suffer until it gets its house in order.’ What sort of suffering? Not letting them travel. Deportation – further down the road. Curtailing of freedoms. Strip­ searching people who look like they’re from the Middle East or from Pakistan... Discriminatory stuff, until it hurts the whole community and they start getting tough with their children. 

He has let off steam. But this is not enough.  None of us just wants to feel.  We need also justify our feelings, and to ourselves most of all.  So Amis he gives us a theory to explain why these bad men behave as they do. 

They hate us for letting our children have sex and take drugs – well, they’ve got to stop their children killing people. It’s a huge dereliction on their part. I suppose they justify it on the grounds that they have suffered from state terrorism in the past, but I don’t think that’s wholly irrational. It’s their own past they’re pissed off about; their great decline. It’s also masculinity, isn’t it?

Amis is less humane than the Azande, who although they believe that bad magic comes from the evil thoughts of other people don’t seek to destroy their enemies.  On the contrary!  They use good magic to combat the evil effects only. That is: they look at the metaphysical causes that produce the physical effects and use their own metaphysical ideas to combat them. Magic is essentially an intellectual game where the person with the greatest mental resources wins.

To transfer this way of thinking to our political realm: we should look for the social and political causes that produce terrorism; which is generally a group behaviour induced by the wider environment.  Once these causes are discovered we should seek to change the political and social arrangements that give rise to them - such as the West’s support for Arab dictatorships, particularly in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  Only for individual cases would we look at personal and psychological remedies.  Amis’ thinking, which seeks to explain social phenomena by individual psychology alone, is the sort of crude intellectual approach that went out of fashion in the social sciences in the 19th century, when it was shown to be a woefully inadequate way of understanding groups and social systems.♦︎

Of course this is terribly unfair!  For one thing I am not comparing like with like - Muslims do not belong to Amis’ own tribe; and therefore do not encourage either the sympathy or the restraint that arises out of proximity and a common identity. Such a comparison is nevertheless interesting because it does bring out a particular kind of modern mentality; one we associate especially with intellectuals.  

To give one example: both the Azande and Amis seek a primary cause in the thoughts of their enemies. However, the Azande attribute a metaphysical quality to these thoughts, while Amis locates them within the human mind and body.  This distinction gives rise to radically different conclusions. 

In Azande belief ideas can float free of the individual; it is the reason the victim can use his own magic to fight them.  With Amis they are anchored into the individual self, and it is only by penalising the person, by making their body suffer (if only by denying them foreign travel), that these bad thoughts can be erased.  Social distance and his own intellectual training allows Amis to turn individual Muslims into an idea.  He then expects the body of each Muslim to expunge this idea; which can only be done if they modify their behaviour - by bringing their children up properly (i.e. like us).  This is a psychological explanation with an added layer of abstraction embedded into it, which then generalises the proposition, so that we are no longer talking about a person but a people.  

The Azande also give a psychological explanation for bad magic; but rather than attributing it to an idealised group they seek to identity the individual from which it originates.  They then use good magic to remove the influence of those bad thoughts; sometimes with the use of oracles or witchdoctors, which expose and humiliate the thinker of bad thoughts; at other times through the use of their own magical formulas to disarm the ideas themselves. In Amis the idea and the person are fused; the person is both part of a group and the cause of that group’s beliefs.  He reminds us of what anthropologists used to think about primitive societies.

“In short,” writes Malinowski “underlying all these ideas was the assumption that in primitive societies the individual is completely dominated by the group - the horde, the clan or the tribe - that he obeys the commands of his community, its traditions, its public opinion, its decrees with a slavish, fascinated, passive obedience.” Malinowski has no difficulty in showing that all this is nonsense…. (Evans-Pritchard, A History of Anthropological Thought)

In contrast the Azande assume that relationship between the idea and the person is not a fixed one - sometimes the originator of bad thoughts needs to stop thinking them; while on other occasions only the thoughts themselves need to be targeted and treated.  That is: there are times when ideas have their own independent existence and force - the key insight of Durkheim.

Because this is not a true comparison - I would have to look at how the Azande respond to an external enemy - this is mere speculation. However, it is suggestive of the tendency of modern man to subsume the individual into the group, and to believe that the group dominates and determines each member’s behaviour. Of course, when we come to look at ourselves we do not appreciate the influence of our own tribe, and so believe ourselves to be autonomous individuals.  And we feel this to be true and obvious! We feel that we are free in a way that is impossible when we think about other people only as facts and abstractions. For rational thought, unless moderated by insight and judgement which sensitises us to the individual case, is the great totalitarian; effortlessly binding a huge number of effects to a few simple causes, it imprisons an infinite variety of characters inside ready-made classifications and categories. 

Amis is an amateur in politics and philosophy.  He is thus too ready to accept the folk beliefs of his culture, while he is oblivious to the dangers of extrapolating arguments from his emotions.  In consequence he uses the wrong level of causal explanation, leading to a psychologism that tries to understand an alien ideology by abstracting from his own feelings. The result is terrible: the self-righteous condemnation of people he is unable to comprehend. The Azande, because they share an ideology and experience each other’s emotions, do not have this luxury.

♦︎ Durkheim’s invaluable service in distinguishing between social facts and individual psychology has tended to be dismissed by British thinkers, who argue that the two cannot be so rigidly separated.  What they overlook is that Durkheim used this distinction as a heuristic tool so as to discover the uniqueness of social facts.  Like any good scientist he created an ideal model - a rational fiction - in order to isolate and thus interrogate a specific constellation of data.  Once new theories have been invented to explain such constellations the social facts can be reintegrated with individual psychology to offer a significantly new perspective on the world.

Indeed, just such a filtering process is what appears to have happened to British anthropology; which has tended to accept Durkheim’s general approach while junking some of his individual ideas.  Thus in his book on anthropological theory Evans-Pritchard, despite his chapter dismissing Durkheim, gravitates to those thinkers who create deductive models.  This is because Evans-Pritchard, although sensitive to the surface variation of life, knew that in order to understand reality at a deep level we first have to invent fictions to see it. It is only later that can we test the validity of these theories against the surface phenomena.  Thus in Durkheim’s case, even though his particular ideas about totemism are wrong, his theories offer enormous insight into the monotheistic religions and contemporary ideology.  Durkheim’s central mistake, misled by the fashionable obsession that the present could be explained by its origins, was to think he was writing about the past when in fact he was uncovering the secrets of European society in the late 19th century. Scholars who thus concentrate on the ethnographic data are thus choosing the wrong societies in which to assess the true importance of this great thinker.  

I believe that Evans-Pritchard, who was very aware of his intellectual debt to the French master, knew this; and so like the pretender to the throne who has to kill the king to replace him (a key idea in Frazer’s The Golden Bough) he (very self-consciously) committed (intellectual) regicide. 

◘ See my pieces on Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest - particularly It Was A Smile, It Was An Earthquake and Freedom Against Freedom - for an attempt at such an integration that tries to give due weight to both individual psychology and the social facts.

*3 Foucault’s central intuition is profound and important: the authoritarian nature of rationality.  His mistake was to miss its double aspect. Reason also civilises and complicates our wild and simple natures. In consequence he exaggerates both its inhumanity and its power, especially in everyday affairs.  Believing the worst of reason he created a series of fictions in which it became the evil villain; the master-criminal of the modern world.  In many ways he is like Marx: his theories are not so much descriptions of the present or the past but prophecies of what might happen if current trends were to achieve their apotheosis in the future. 

xlvii.  For a very good insider account of high politics see Christopher Meyer’s DC Confidential.  It is the banality of political life that is its most prominent feature.

xlviii.  One possible explanation for the 1960s revolt was the intellectuals’ attempt to re-enchant the world with meaning.  This is brilliantly brought out in Robert Irwin’s Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties.

xlix. Towards the end of his book The Social Psychology of Industry J.A.C. Brown provides an extraordinary list of the types of people who cause pathology.  

‘There are,’ writes Dr L.G. Brown…, ‘a great many carriers of mental ill-health in society.  These individuals are not insane or likely to be.  Frequently they are persons holding important positions and places of advantage in society.  Because of their position they can play with the self-respect of their subordinates.  They help to create psychopathic personalities, problem individuals, persons with feelings of insecurity, attitudes of self-pity, fears, doubts, obsessions, delusions, and serious compensatory distortions.  These include parents, teachers, executives, ministers, lawyers, doctors, statesmen, relatives, social workers, nursemaids, and a whole host of others in positions of authority.’

The bourgeoisie produce insanity!  Which implies that they themselves are pathological…  It is possible that the two Browns are correct, although the sweeping conclusion suggests there is something wrong in their analysis - their conception of the stable and balanced group as the ideal is a utopian vision that inevitably includes a normative judgement; one that condemns a reality that by its very nature must remain impure and imperfect.  However, the truth of their statements is less important than their expression, which suggests that by the 1950s the bourgeoisie had lost their legitimacy, and were undergoing a crisis.  

Though note an important omission: neither academics nor psychiatrists are included in the above list.  It is axiomatic that they are sane and have the right psychological medicines to make society well.  Professor Brown knows the truth.  It is his task to make society accept it….  

We are not so sure.  And in our confusion we offer an alternative explanation for such opinions. These professors were believers in a different type of social order, and they were looking to destroy the one that resisted its implementation. The instigators of this social alternative belonged to the academic class, which was part of an evangelical movement (Education) that reaches its peak during the 1960s, when it attempts to take over society by using the workers to destroy the institutions and the culture that enjoyed hegemonic dominance.  It has many successes, and helps transform the culture, but ultimately fails, as a new type of corporate capitalism takes over and consolidates its power during the 1980s and 90s.  Education as an independent force then declines, and is turned into a servant of institutional capitalism; its primary function today.

For Brown the central problem is that much of industry has failed to adapt to the collective culture of 20th century capitalism.  Companies are therefore failing to address the psychological strains that such collectivism produces.  To look after the body, on which firms have spent enormous resources (improved lighting, heating, canteen facilities etc.), is not enough.  The mind too needs to be treated with care.  And this can only be done if the individual is properly integrated into his work team; where he must be treated with respect, and given freedom and responsibility within the limits set by the task and the work environment.  But…we again wonder…

And…we look again at that list.  Isn't it the people who manage others who are suffering the mental crises?  The strain of controlling subordinates is the primary cause of these psychological problems, which inevitably increased with the rise in the number of managers, as companies became larger and the service sector expanded.  Let’s go further… As a greater amount of activity is centred around people - in big companies interaction tends to be with humans rather than with things - so the mental health of the employees will deteriorate; unless there is a way of offsetting the tensions between them.  Brown has described the problem but he has been misled by his theories to overlook the central cause: it is other people (Sartre was right when he wrote Huis Clos) who make us ill.  Thus his solution - integrating the individual into the group - far from improving mental health may actually make it worse, because the more closely we work with others the more strain we are likely to feel.  This is brilliantly captured by E.E. Evans-Pritchard in his monograph on the Azande, where he argues that witchcraft is used to protect each member of the tribe from…yes…everyone else (or to be more accurate: to protect oneself from the evil thoughts of others). 

I wish to make this point very clear because we shall not understand Zande magic, and the differences between ritual behaviour and empirical behaviour in the lives of the Azande, unless we realize that its main purpose is to combat other mystical powers rather than to produce changes favourable to man in the objective world.  Thus, medicines employed to ensure a fine harvest of eleusine are not so much thought to stimulate the eleusine as to keep witches away from it.  The eleusine will be all right if witchcraft can be excluded. (Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande)

The Azande attributed all tensions between themselves to witchcraft; a witchdoctor or an oracle used as mediator when a tension could not be resolved by an individual’s own superstitious utterances.  Magic was a way of dissolving social tensions, leading to the (temporary) abatement of the stress caused by living with other people.*1  Professor Brown attributes the same kinds of stresses to the inability of the individual to adapt to the spirit of the group; he then suggests that the spirit be intensified!  Social psychology a modern form of witchcraft that prefers the illness to the cure.

It is interesting to compare Brown’s book with William H. Whyte’s.  Brown argues that modern society is essentially pathological; Whyte that the modern American corporation is too comfortable - for the clerks and middle managers who run it.  Can two such contradictory accounts be true?  My guess is that Whyte exaggerates the comfort; and Brown the mental pain - Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road struggles with his cosy suburban life; while Arthur Seaton in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning enjoys his work, even though he often complains about it; but note: his complaints are about other people, and especially his supervisors; they are not about the work itself, which he likes because it allows his imagination to run free.

All of this suggests something very interesting: the Marxist idea of a class war is in actuality a psychological one; although it is not between the workers and the owners of capital but between an employee and those that directly manage him.*2  Class war takes place within classes not between them.  But then, as the companies became larger, and the number of managers and administrators increased, the tensions multiplied, and all sides - the employees and their supervisors - began to suffer.  The tension particularly acute in Britain because of its individualistic past.*3

*1 Before the office there was the family home.  Were the large families of the 19th century bourgeoisie the most palpable sign of such social stress? Was this stress the beginning of the bourgeoisie’s reaction against their own lifestyle?  The origin of the idea that the family is the central psychological problem?  And did this open the way to detaching the individual from the family circle and gluing them to the corporate organisation? That glue now drying out, as the institutions contract out their services.

† We get an acute sense of this stress in Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber; while also witnessing the solution - to find activities outside the home:

Sometimes, though, I get the feeling that Mama can no longer really ‘rest’ at all or concentrate, for example, on serious reading; or that it takes a much longer period of rest to completely relax her nerves and, as it were, to bring her from constant inner vibration into a state of calm….  Such long meetings for the sake of personal interchanges are a strain for me, and, since I hate any nervous fatigue that results in feelings of listlessness or irritability, I too prefer to limit myself a little in some areas - from Mama’s point of view such ‘sparing of oneself’ is actually a lack of interest in other people and a kind of mollycoddling to be extirpated by all means possible.  As I have often teasingly said to Mama, if there are two paths to something she will surely consider the more difficult one to be right, on the Christian principle of ‘crucifying the flesh’. (Marianne Weber)

One possible explanation of this crisis was that Christianity could no longer offer the intellectual and ritualistic support to enable the bourgeoisie to cope with the new tensions in their lives.  It was a religion undergoing change and decay - thus Weber’s mother turned to a more Unitarian type of Christianity; while Weber and his wife accepted the secularism of the age.  

It was in this bourgeois crisis that we see the beginnings of a social ethic founded upon institutions that was later to suffer its own collapse in the 1960s.

*2 W.G. Runciman’s focus on status as opposed to class, and the importance of one’s most immediate reference groups for judging one’s own success, supports such a view (see his classic Relative Deprivation and Social Justice: A Study of Attitudes to Social Inequality in Twentieth Century England).

*3  Today the solution to these psychological problems is seen as individual and biological not collective and social; this emphasis the most obvious sign of the ideological transformation that has occurred since the 1950s.

l. Scruton ascribes these changes to socialism.  He hasn’t noticed that it is corporate capitalism that is the great enemy of culture in the present century.  To put it crudely: contemporary capitalism prefers the mass society because that is where the biggest profits are made (according to David Harvey 70% of all production today is for the consumer market as compared to 20% in the 19th century.  The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism*1).  

This is too crude!  As William H. Whyte shows, the reasons go deeper than simple economic utilitarianism; the 20th century a time when industry and popular democracy were fused together.*2 Socialism part of a general shift in the fundamental nature of society; which started around the 1880s when the ruling classes, the intellectuals, significant elements in the bourgeoise, and the burgeoning working classes all combined (but for different reasons) to control capitalism. The old Christian ethos was transformed into a largely secular morality, which nevertheless retained important elements of Christianity.  This produced a new social ethic that elevated the idea of community above that of the individual. The agents of this transformation included mass-based political parties; the large corporations; the state institutions, and social movements of various kinds; all of which where connected in some way with the rise of a nationalism that grew out of rapid industrialisation at the end of the 19th century (Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism).  

In his book The Organization Man Whyte argues that in mid-century America the corporations valued the ordinary man above the exceptional individual; and this made it easy for a corporation to mould its employees.  The bureaucratic capitalism Whyte describes is what Scruton miscalls socialism; two quite different social and intellectual species, though they do share a number of assumptions and forms of thoughts. Both have a predilection for bureaucracy, which relies upon a particular mode of rationality - bureaucratic reason - that consists of mental conceptions permeated with a sense of order, regularity and predictability.  Such a mindset places a high premium on stability.  This produces a culture where the odd individual is perceived as an anomaly and therefore a mistake or even a threat, because they add an element of chance and randomness to system that finds such attributes difficult to control.*3  It was these bureaucracies, and particularly the large corporations, that killed off the old style bourgeoisie, as Whyte indeed notes in his book.*4  They were replaced by a new kind of person.

Large organisations in particular have a very specific attraction to those with an unusual need for security and so come to have a disproportionate share, a super-saturation, of the passive, dependent, and submissive.  This condition would not be such a threat to the moral and organisational integrity of an enterprise if it were recognized for what it is and its implications understood.  But this is rarely the case.  (Robert N. McMurry, quoted in The Organization Man).*5

Whyte’s book is old now.  In the decade after it was written a new culture emerged that tended to deride the social ethic he describes.  Indeed, already within that culture there were tensions that were bound to surface at some point - the unconditioned working classes; the requirement for dynamic leaders (who, as Whyte describes, were generally alienated from the community ethic of the corporation); the need for technological innovation (that relies on exceptional and therefore independent characters); and the dependence upon perpetual growth, and especially the growth of each of these large corporations.

Since the 1960s the social ethic has collapsed, and has been replaced by a far more individualised one.  Nevertheless, much of what Whyte describes still feels true.  What has happened?  The social ethic is no longer so overt because it doesn’t need to be.  We have imbibed it to such a degree that it has become a habit - we accept as axiomatic that we must serve a company; even when deride the work, our bodies are carrying out its instructions without thought or resistance.  The social ethic is buried so deep in our psyche that today we do not know that it even exists.  Something that was obvious, because it was new and because people, particularly intellectuals, were shaping and developing it, has become invisible, because it now underpins, that is structures, all of our society.*6  

But we must be careful…  It is not exactly the same ethic.  Since the 1960s its nature has changed significantly; the internal dynamic of the corporations has fused with the ideas of its radical critics to produce a new synthesis.  In the 19th century the social ethic consisted of essentially pre-capitalist values; in America in the 1950s its nature was determined by the bureaucratic structure of the modern institution (either state or corporate company); while today it is imbued with the culture of consumer capitalism.  Social egalitarianism, technological utopianism, emotional impulsiveness and bureaucratic reason*7 have together produced a new and very peculiar society; one in which all its individuals are members of a capitalist community.

On the surface of the culture there are plenty of ideas that seem to contradict this argument  There is the idea that we are all unique individuals and that society should serve our needs.  This contradiction is more apparent than real because we are defined in an extremely narrow way - as rational economic actors in the marketplace.  Thus even when we are at our most individual we behave like the ideal member of the capitalist community; because it is the prevailing culture that decides the meaning of this term.*8  In a society where individualism is idolised the more we try to live up to the ideal, by acting like unique individuals, the more conformist we will become.  

In sociology there is a famous distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft; the former describing the modern, rational and essentially atomised world of industrial society.  Over the last century Gesellschaft has been collapsing into Gemeinschaft as the abstract rules of process and method that run our institutions, and govern most of the instrumental activities of daily life, have acquired a value in themselves.  Today it is in these abstract processes where the meaning of our society lies.*9 We can only be truly human if we are rational.  But to be rational is to accept the bizarre rational order of modern capitalism.

Our narrow ideas about individuality and society feed off older and far richer conceptions about individuals and the social world.*10  Today the substantive content of these old ideas has been largely eviscerated; their emotional appeal used largely to sell commodities and control public behaviour.  Thus the individual as consumer is worshipped, while the individual as independent thinker is attacked as an elitist who looks down on the ordinary person.*11  This has led to a strange inversion, whereby community is now associated with the workplace, and everywhere outside it becomes a virtual marketplace of largely atomised individuals, who are themselves seen as products; nicely captured by Emily Witt, who shows rich Americans treating both themselves and each other as consumer goods.  This is an extreme example, I know; but it might be a presage of the future.

Individualism is now used to protect the ruling class from the effects of the social ethic that Whyte describes.  He noted the executives who ran the corporations where often in conflict with the culture of their organisations, whose middle layers of management tended to employ people of a similar kind to themselves, rather than the more dynamic and aggressive personalities we usually associate with leaders. In the 1960s and 1970s the executive class used their power to force both the general culture and the individual firm to accept the reality of their privileged position, by dressing it up as the equality of competition.  They were able to prevent, to use Whyte's terminology, Organization Man from taking over the organisation.

Curiously, the CEOs of American corporations shared with the bohemians and Left Radicals a distaste for corporate bureaucrats;*12 whose styles of life and thought were a threat to their own highly individualistic qualities.  This suggests something of the force of the 1960’s rebellion.  It wasn’t really an attack on the bourgeoisie but an assault on a particular type of person - the bureaucrat - who was seen as having acquired too much power.*13  The 1960s was essentially a revolution against bureaucracy (thus it is no surprise that Weber became fashionable around this time). The largely unintended result was the increased domination of the CEOs, who used the submissiveness of the corporate bureaucracies to reassert and then increase their executive power.*14  In the process they entrenched the social ethic across society while at the same time transforming it into an extremely narrow economic creed.*15

*1 Harvey’s book is full of insights.  It also has four serious flaws.  

Flaw one: it believes that there is a single capitalism, when in fact there are numerous varieties.  

Flaw two: it assumes the Left is right and the crazies on the margins will save the planet…Oh dear!  The Left is often wrong.  Why? Because it doesn't comprehend the true nature of what it criticises; too often it can only interpret institutions from the outside; thus its common mistake of confusing the ideal of capitalism with the actual practices of the firms that comprise it.  We can go further.  Indeed.  Let us go much much further…Let us argue that the Left helped create a capitalist class through its advocacy of class war.  Yes?  Yes!  The Left actually helped to make the class that it hates so much.  

Harvey’s third flaw is his obsession with “the contradictions of capitalism”.  Of course capitalism has its contradictions.  But then so do all societies, each of which must find their own ways of resolving them.  A far better way to look at social formations is to think of tensions, which are inherent to any complex system.  

Flaw four is the author’s intellectual naivety: he doesn’t question his own assumptions.  He thus assumes that historically the Left has always been right (except for a few mistakes along the way) but has always been defeated by the power of its enemies.  Thus his argument that its demands for equality, democracy and freedom have been frustrated by the predatory and monopolistic nature of capitalism.  But have they really?  The consumer society thrives on the three central ideas of the French Revolution; all of which are a wonderful way of protecting the system against anti-capitalist forces (such as well-informed professors - Michelle Jones is entitled to her opinion and she thinks Amazon is great; so there!).  What David Harvey has missed is that the Left has helped to radically shape Capitalism, and that the modern variant - a corporate capitalism based on finance and computers - is in large part the product of Left wing ideals and Left wing critique (this is brilliantly captured in the second programme of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace), not their negation.  Of course the Left has not remained static either.  The Left of the 1960s, a movement of essentially suburban kids from bourgeois families, was a very different social force from the one created by the radicals and the bohemians and the trade unionists of the 1840s and the 1890s.  By 1968 socialism was as much a creation of the large corporations as it was of the socialist movement itself.

*2 J.A.C. Brown’s book is an example of how the meaning of democracy changed during the 20th century.  In this period it stopped being a purely political concept and became a collection of ideas about the collective social will.  This is why Brown can equate democracy with a group working together as equal partners in a shared task.  This idea has percolated deep down into the subsoil of our thought, so that today when people talk about democracy what they are actually referring to is the acceptance of society’s norms, which are expected to bind us altogether into a single community of social equals, whose purpose is to help companies make profits (which are believed to constitute a public good because they produce growth, which is expected to benefit everyone).  Democracy has ceased to be a political idea, although it is still couched in the language of politics, and is instead conceived as a mode of behaviour.  Today democracy means getting along with people; and this produces a curious relativism - everyone is entitled to their opinion, which is not open to disproof by the more knowledgeable.  Indeed, to assert one’s superior knowledge is show disrespect to another person’s mind, and is regarded as undemocratic.†1 The only exceptions to this rule are narrowly technical questions which require technical expertise and the views of those outsiders - terrorist; white racist; socialist; fundamentalist Muslim - who openly attack the society’s values. They can be condemned: as extremists.†2

†1 Contrast with Samuel Johnson’s idea of the free Englishman:

Whence then is the courage of the English vulgar?  It proceeds, in my opinion, from that dissolution of dependence which obliges every man to regard his own character.  While every man is fed by his own hands, he has no need of any servile arts: he may always have wages for his labour; and is no less necessary to his employer than his employer is to him.  While he looks for no protection from others, he is naturally roused to be his own protector; and having nothing to abate his esteem of himself, he consequently aspires to the esteem of others.  Thus every man that crowds our streets is a man of honour, disdainful of obligation, impatient of reproach, and desirous of extending his reputation among those of his own rank; and as courage is in most frequent use, the fame of courage is most eagerly pursued.  From this neglect of subordination I do not deny that some inconveniences may from time to time proceed: the power of the law does not always sufficiently supply the want of reverence, or maintain the proper distinction between different ranks: but good and evil will grow up in this world together; and they who complain, in peace, of the insolence of the populace, must remember that their insolence in peace is bravery in war. (The Bravery of the English Common Soldiers in The Major Works)

†2 One of the many interesting things in Barthes’ Mythologies are his illustrations of how the media culture filters out much of the substance of what it portrays.  It is a process of perpetual compromise that takes away the extremes and removes the confusing messiness from life.  Everything has to be safe and clear.  For the bourgeoisie this means turning all things into conventional ideas; while for the petit-bourgeoisie and the working classes the world is portrayed as a vast array of familiar or fantasy objects.

*3 J.A.C. Brown does actually write that the individual who doesn’t collaborate with the reasonable demands of the group is a neurotic and anti-social person.

*4 Weber was very acute on this.  Reinhard Bendix summaries his position:

The development of bureaucracy does away with such plutocratic privileges, replacing unpaid, avocational administration by notables with paid, full-time administration by professionals, regardless of their social and economic position.  Also, it rejects the “decision-making from case to case” that is typical of non bureaucratic forms of administration.  Authority is exercised in accordance with rules, and everyone subject to that authority is legally equal.  Connected with these leveling tendencies is a major change in the system of education.  Administration by notables usually is administration by amateurs; bureaucracy usually is administration by experts.  Equal eligibility for administrative appointments means in fact equal eligibility of all who meet the stipulated educational requirements.  Educational diplomas have replaced privilege as the basis of administrative recruitment, just as scientific education and technical expertise have replaced the cultivation of the mind through classical literature and the cultivation of manners through competitive games among social equals.  The expert, not the cultivated man, is the educational ideal of a bureaucratic age.  (Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait)

Since the 1960s a largely successful effort has ensured that “privilege” acquires all the important “educational diplomas”.  

*5 This contention is supported by anthropology.

There is a social selection of personalities, discussed by Thurnwald under the caption “Siebung” (sifting) and independently by several British and American authors. The madcap hero of a horde of warriors is the ruffianly bravado of a more staid society; the musing sage of one group is a maladjusted milksop in a mining camp. Indeed, as Seligman remarks, savages invest with prestige persons we should clap into an asylum for the insane. Since this is a general human process, the records of literate peoples might well be scrutinised from this angle. Savage society presents no more striking case than the ascendancy of Samuel Johnson in British life contemporaneously not only with Lessing and Voltaire on the Continent, but with Adam Smith, Hume and Gibbon in Scotland and England. For the British strainer, to use Thurnwald’s analogy, these towering intellects were mere dregs. (Robert Lowie, The History of Ethnological Thought

Different social forms filter out different types of personality; who thus become excluded   and outcast.  However, such clearly defined personality types are rare - the majority of people are able to adapt and conform to their immediate environment; corporate business, for example, usually requires only a temperate character and a modicum of talent in its employees.  

*6 I take this distinction from Raymond Firth, who differentiates between social organisation (generally overt) and social structure (generally latent).  Social organisation is the processes of life as carried out by individuals, groups and institutions; social structure the culture which shapes and limits those processes.†1  There are occasions, however, when the latter may become so powerful as to change the social structure itself; and indeed one could argue that is precisely what occurred in the 1960s.  

It is no accident that Firth is writing about social organisation - that is: process and change - for already by the early 1950s the existing structuralist orthodoxy, with its ideas about social equilibrium, was on the wane in anthropology.  William H.Whyte was thus writing about a phenomenon that had already reached its intellectual peak; the moment when a movement is often at its weakest.†2 

†2 There appears always a time lag between the period when radically new ideas become the intellectual orthodoxy of a specialist field and when they become the conventional wisdom for the rest of the society. Thus the heyday of structural anthropology was in the 1930s, but ideas about social equilibrium were prominent in the intellectual and political class from the 1950s until at least the early 1970s; one reason, perhaps, why French structuralism had such a vogue in the 1960s; it was an avant-garde movement that resonated with the zeitgeist.

*7 That these qualities are not contradictory is demonstrated in Rex Warner’s marvellous The Aerodrome; a novel which shows how instrumental reason and pure instinct are two aspects of the same mentality.

*8 Whyte notes something extraordinarily interesting: in a corporation where the social ethic is strong employees compete with each other to be the most socially cooperative. Whyte gives a fascinating description:

Older executives learned better long ago.  At a reunion dinner for business-school graduates a vice-president of a large steel company brought up the matter of conformity and, eyeing his table companions, asked if they felt as he did: he was, he said, becoming more of a conformist.  There was an explosion of table thumping and head noddings.  In the mass confessional that followed, everyone present tried to top the others in describing the extent of his conformity.

The result feels paradoxical but is in fact present day common sense: the modern corporation produces an environment where people compete to be the most conformist.  Why should this be so?  Because in our society we are at our most individual when we share all its key values.† 

† The best example is Innstetten, as described in my One Smile, It Was an Earthquake.  Implicit in this piece is the argument that the ideas of freedom and independence are determined by each social system, which creates the ideal to which every member then aspires.  Those that achieve the ideal are truly free, but only within that system.  How do we measure between these systems? Already there is a problem…for if some people can achieve freedom in any society it will be difficult to decide the relative merits between societies, especially as each will rate some quality higher than another - freedom of the mind (social democracy circa 1954); freedom to serve (Innstetten’s); freedom of the body (ours) -; and deny or suppress those qualities that others (usually outsiders) believe are extremely important.  It is a tangled knot that requires… Yes! Another piece.  But for now…we conclude that the idea of freedom per se is too weak and too contingent a concept to measure social systems that are qualitatively different.  (For related discussion see my Freedom Against Freedom.)

*9 The aim of the New Left was to make society both more rational and more gemütlichkeit; thereby ridding the world of its impersonal instrumentality.  They succeeded!  They were the avant-garde of the New Capitalism, although we must add this caveat - they were formed by the culture of their parents; who worked in the corporations and lived in the suburbs.  The socialism of the 1960s was a socialism excessively influenced by suburbia, especially in America.

The odd aspect of modernity has been its ability to separate out four aspects of life that are usually fused together: economics, politics, thought and social experience.†1 But this is changing. Since the late 19th century these are being brought ever closer to together to again form a seamless whole; as in the pre-industrial world. The cuddly meaning-entangled life of the old Gemeinschaft is being replicated into a new form of Gesellschaft; where all the old ties of community, and the feelings they produced, are mediated through institutions and technology.  Today our irrationalism is largely catered for by consumer items - whether they be objects, entertainment or sport.  In the earlier transitional stages of industrial society, where communities were still strong, and thus collective action viable and powerful, much of this irrationalism was located in politics; still a powerful force in developing societies.

There is… one great danger of mass democracy that merits special consideration: the predominance of emotional over rational elements in the process of political decision-making…  Weber referred to the ‘politics of the street’ and a ‘syndicalism of immaturity’ as the ultimate extremes of mass democracy.  In his judgement, the threat of mob rule was greatest where parliamentary rule is impotent or discredited, where political parties are not strongly organized, where the appeal to fear can be successful because of failure of nerve among the rulers and cowardice of the bourgeoisie, and finally, where in the large cities idlers and coffeehouse intellectuals are permitted to engage in political agitation in the absence of an organized working class. (Reinhard Bendix)

Since the 1960s the “politics of the street” and the “syndicalism of immaturity” have been denatured; while the “coffeehouse intellectuals” have been turned into social scientists.  At the same time an organized working class has been removed as a countervailing force; and politics has increasingly become a form of administration (on behalf of the state-corporate institutions).  The result is a relatively static society†2 where the executive class has a free reign; acting like feudal barons they use high technology to both extract wealth from the society and to control the population.  Little wonder that many thinkers have compared the present time to the feudalism of the Middle Ages.†3  But it is a feudalism turned upside down.  That social system depended on the body - the peasant and the warrior.  Today’s relies on the mind - the scientist and the clerk.  This creates curious ideological effects.  Then God legitimised society; and Mind was the ideal.  Today Nature is the legitimatising authority; the Body the source of our authenticity.†4  

And Weber?  He was describing a transitional stage that incorporated elements of both the pre-modern and modern worlds;  a strange interregnum that produced a thought system that was excessively mechanical (and which I analyse across the footnotes of my Tantrum). This led him to predict a universal bureaucracy that would eventually become as rigid and sterile as ancient Egypt’s.  Although the causes are different - the state has lost power to the corporate class - it is a prophecy that may yet come true, although with this curious effect: we may not notice that it is occurring, the illusions of society making us believe that we are wild and free.

†2 In its social stratification and its values.  For excellent comment see Adam Curtis’ Now Then.

†4  If such a (simple) formulation is true then it is highly suggestive - ideals represent exactly what the society lacks. Thus a society that worships individualism is one where individualism doesn't actually exist.  

Of course I go too far.  Since the 19th century shifts in culture have occurred at an exceedingly fast rate; so that many of the ideas and values of previous cultures carry over into the prevailing one.

*10 Raymond Firth speculates that the purpose of an ideal is only to give a symbolic meaning to life; and is not supposed to be realised in actual lived experience.  These meanings are then used to regulate and maintain the underlying social structure.  Viewed in this way the modern concept of individuality is an ideal that prevents the formulation of different social conceptions that would allow for the invention of qualitatively different ideas about what makes for free individuals.  Strong cohesive communities can actually be conducive to independent and eccentric minds; think of the old craft industries and the older professions, and especially the academic profession in the ancient universities.  Such communities must be small enough to allow empathetic understanding and porous enough to let in external influences; Stefan Collini’s comments on H.L.A. Hart (in my Freedom Against Freedom) is one excellent example. Such a social space provides the individual with a different value system with which he can measure and resist the conformist pressures of the wider society (the public realm, as discussed in The Temperate Zone, is one such contested arena); his individuality evolving not only out of these tensions, but also out of the productive and inventive life a tolerant and stimulating community can encourage and even produce.  Today such communities are seen as coercive and destructive of an individual’s autonomy.  Thus in striving to be individual (as defined by today’s social norms) we destroy the very mechanisms that would allow us to think in a truly individual way.

† Although we need to qualify this statement - culture is rarely changed by a mass of individuals; such indiscriminate groupings will tend to confirm existing social trends rather than transform them.  

Firth correctly argues that the underlying social structure is changed by the actions of social organisations. Working for their own limited purposes, which are narrowly instrumental, they can either consolidate or undermine the existing society. During the 20th century the corporation slowly became the dominant social organisation; and as its power grew it gradually destroyed the old social ideal of the cohesive community; this was replaced by a new ideal of the autonomous economic person; which today allows companies to relieve themselves of the costs of employee loyalty.♦︎1   

Given Firth’s assumption we can argue that over time this new ideal will slowly transform the latent social ethic on which corporate capitalism currently depends; until a point is reached when economic individualism becomes the fundamental ethos of the society (rather than just its surface ideology), and so helps determine its social structure.  When this point is reached all interactions between people and institutions will be market transactions, and a society will have been created that relies totally on bureaucratic reason.  

If such a society were to emerge it would become - contra Max Weber - highly unstable; because bureaucratic reason is a narrow, insecure, suspicious and highly formal way of thinking.  It is a lonely kind of thought, which because it depends upon the workings of the conscious mind cannot be grounded in feelings, habits, experience and intuitions; its judgement is therefore weak, and it lacks cognitive stability.  A highly intelligent bureaucrat who relies exclusively on instrumental reason will find it hard to trust anyone; instead he will come to rely completely on what he believes is his own rationally transparent mind, which he uses to constantly interrogate the world for facts and arguments to provide incontrovertible proof of his ideas.  He needs the literal truth now! This makes him unstable and authoritarian (the Left is full of people like this; and since the rise of the New Right our society is run by them).  Other people are opaque to him.  His life is full of conspiracies….♦︎2  

In the long run what kind of society is this likely to produce?  Up to now intellectuals have talked a lot about individualism, but in actual fact such individualism has been highly qualified; indeed the intellectuals have projected their own bureaucratic reason onto a society far more resistant to it than they have imagined. Through their persistence they have chipped away at the old collective and intuitive modes of thought, and have, together with the corporations and the state bureaucrats (and the educators), succeeded in suffusing our societies with instrumental rationality; although today this is subsumed under the ethos of corporate capitalism, which structures the culture.  But of course this ethos is changing, it is becoming more individualised…

A world full of insane bureaucrats?  Is that our future?  It feels like a story by J.G.Ballard.  Indeed, it is possible that he has produced the great myth of our times in his Report on an Unidentified Space Station (in War Fever).  The future.  It is a vast expanding space station that is coexistent with the universe.  A crew of people land on it; their purpose to stay for a short time to repair their spaceship. Driven by curiosity they set out to search through the station’s vast array of seemingly empty rooms and corridors.  But…the station is so enormous they will never get to the end of it.  Nevertheless, on they trek.  It is a meaningless search, a mad pointless routine, that becomes their only meaning in life.

So we move on, sustained by our faith in the station, aware that every step we take thereby allows us to reach a small part of that destination.  By its existence the station sustains us, and gives our lives their only meaning.  We are glad that in return we have begun to worship the station.

Ballard, who in his short stories is the greatest British writer of the last fifty years, noticed something very important about modern society. Its rationality is actually a form of insanity.  Think of his highly intelligent characters who withdraw from the world into the mysticism of their own minds; or the psychiatrists who are themselves mad even when at their most sane (brilliantly captured in the ambiguous ending to The Insane Ones, in The Day of Forever).  The future?  It is a fiction we will create our selves.  No. This is not quite right.  The future will be a fiction.  But it will be created by the most conventional of bureaucrats.

♦︎1 Richard Crockett’s book, which I have unfairly maligned, is a good example of how the ideal of the social ethic was gradually eroded.  Jenny Diski’s article on the rise of the self-employed worker describes a world where work relationships are purely contractual; a significantly more instrumental kind of employment than  that of the older corporate ethos of the 1950s, where workers invested part of their personalities into the companies for which they worked.

◘ This should be read in conjunction with Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World. Shaxson argues that beginning in the 1950s The City of London began to undermine the post-war settlement, whose foundation was the control of the financial industry.

♦︎2 The Victorian Civil Service was able to control this tendency by creating a culture that preferred judgement to pure ratiocination.  For excellent comment on its origins and the fears of the political elite about the expert (and their limited, and therefore stupid, cleverness) see Llewellyn Woodward’s The Age of Reform: England 1815-1870.  For a complete misunderstanding of this culture and the reasons why it was created - to prevent the state becoming too powerful - see Peter Hennessy’s Whitehall.  

◘ Hennessy is a perfect example of a new type of person that became prominent in the 1960s and who believed that British culture was outdated and inefficient.  Since that decade this personality type has taken over not only the media and politics, but also business, the universities and the public services. In each case these new leaders seek to eradicate the older ethos and its practices.  The last third of the 20th century saw a revolt against the culture of its middle decades.  In polite society we call this modernisation, which may result in the destruction of those strange peculiarities that have for nearly a thousand years made England uniquely England.

*11 Though the common man, in one of life’s ironies, has a tendency to idealise the exceptional person.  Whyte explains this anomaly: the culture of an organisation is determined by its middle layers of management - the Organization Man selects people of his own kind to run it.  

Fast forwarding to today… Our culture is determined by the university educated middle classes who think with bureaucratic reason and are conditioned to accept the values of corporate society.  The result?  They worship freedom, democracy, and equality.  It is not socialists but the bourgeoisie themselves that encourage the equalitarian ideal; an ideal that arises naturally from out of their present culture, whose ethos was transformed during the 20th century.†

† If you have followed my argument up to now you will of course realise that our society gives very specific meanings to these vast but vague concepts; thus to believe in cultural and social equality is to actually permit enormous economic inequality, which is believed to validate the system.

*12 The acquisition of wealth is not what really drives them.  Money is the means by which they satisfy their desires.  CEOs are like artists. They too enjoy the psychological benefits that come from being a virtuoso.  With the rise of the finance industries in the 1960s wealth and success became synonymous; but the psychological drives that Whyte describes remain the same (and are brilliantly captured in Adam Curtis’ The Mayfair Set).  Vast increases in money produces the emotions of power.  However, such emotions are an anathema to Organization Man, who in the decades immediately after the Second World War was able to control them; at least to a significant degree.

*13 See Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool.

*14 J.K. Galbraith’s argument in the The New Industrial State is that the chief executive of a corporation is dependent upon the knowledge of the middle management and its experts; and it is they who actually run and control these large companies.

*15 Whyte’s book is in places very funny.  An unusual quality in a serious work of sociology, and one not be dismissed lightly.

li.  Though see All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace.  Nature is being re-defined as a machine.*  Once upon a time man created God in his own image; he sacralised what was unique and ineffable in him - his own mind.  Today it is nature that is made to mirror the human race.

* The intellectual history is curious.  Following Descartes nature was conceived as a mechanical device.  Then there was a reaction, it began with Newton and culminated around World War II, which came to view nature as an organic process that incorporated Man as just another natural organism.  Since 1945 this incorporation has been accepted, but the conception of nature is once again reverting to a Cartesian mechanicalism, but without the mind-body dualism.  Everything is now a machine.  While this is an accurate description of the way modern man has reshaped, controlled and created nature we wonder if this is actually how the natural environment works - can an organic process really, in the last instance, be reduced to a mechanical one?  Isn't it rather than we are creating a new nature which may one day replace the old?  Yet this transition seems to go unnoticed. In the 21st century Man is a God who denies his own divinity.

lii. This is well-brought out by Ferdinand Mount in his Mind The Gap.  High culture is no longer used quite so prominently as a sign of status.*  Instead, status now seems more closely aligned, is perhaps even synonymous, with class as defined by Max Weber:

The term “class” refers to any group of people [who have the same] typical chance for a supply of goods, external living conditions, and personal life experiences, insofar as this chance is determined by the…power…to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income in a given economic order… “Class situation” is, in this sense, ultimately “market situation”.

What seems to be occurring is that class is replacing status as the determinate feature of a person’s life - her culture, her circle of friends, her source of relationships, her job, her home, her prejudices, are all increasingly determined by the level of her income.  This is something new.

In contrast to the economically determined “class situation” we wish to designate as “status situation” every typical component of the life fate of men that is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honor…. In content, status honor is normally expressed by the fact that a specific style of life can be expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle.  Linked with this expectation are restrictions on “social” intercourse (that is, intercourse which is not subservient to economic…purposes).  These restorations may confine normal marriages within the status circle…

Stratification by status goes hand in hand with a monopolisation of ideal and material goods or opportunities…  Besides the specific status honor, which always rests upon distance and exclusiveness, we find all sorts of material monopolies.  Such honorific preferences may consist of the privilege of wearing special costumes, of eating special dishes taboo to others, of carrying arms….

The decisive role of a “style of life” in status “honor” means that status groups are the specific bearers of all “conventions”.  (from Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, by Reinhard Bendix).

What Weber is describing here is what we now associate with youth cults - Mods, Teds, Hippies, Punks, Goths, Emos etc..  The “styles of life” of these groups have immense importance and meaning for their members, but this significance lasts for only a short period of time - between late adolescence and early adulthood - after which they become merely a form of social decoration, one amongst a plethora of life style choices.  For the majority of people such life styles exist without meaning and are at the mercy of fashion, which is managed by corporations whose interest is to give them ersatz meanings that are not very deep - because they will be changed again in the next season.  

This seems to have been the most important consequence of the 1960s: the style of life has been detached from status, and is no longer used as a way of collectively organising a community, one that is underwritten by intellectuals (called priests in the old days). Instead, a style of life has become the means by which each person can individually select their own styles of living, whose template is mass-produced by commercial bureaucrats.  Status has lost power.  Life style has become a commodity.

In contrast, Weber is describing a culture that is so profoundly embedded in a society that it controls people’s ideas and social interactions, and which in the 19th century underpinned the newly created class distinctions of modern capitalism.  Because status was still connected to religious rituals and taboos it remained immensely powerful; and was able to determine how particularly the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie behaved.  Socialism’s attacks on capitalism and its emphasis on class war has had the effect of strengthening class but weakening status, which in Britain since the 1960s seems to collapsed almost entirely as a means of ordering the society.  Today class rules, so that all meaning has been taken out of culture, which must now serve the economic interests of the major capitalist institutions.   

What has occurred in the last fifty years is that a relatively small elite of very rich people has taken over these institutions and used them to increase their wealth and power.  A new class has been born.  They are not bourgeois.  Nor are they aristocrats.  They are plutocrats imbued with the radical spirit of the 20th century (which they use to break down those institutions and those cultures that resist their influence).  They are a class whose culture is manufactured by corporate capitalism; one reason for its strong emphasis on cultural egalitarianism.  This is a very strange breed indeed: they think like bureaucrats, have the tastes of proletarians, act like revolutionaries, and yet have the riches of a King Midas.

If this account is true we can see that the historical function of the Left was to remove all pre-modern restrictions on capital accumulation.  Far from it being in opposition to Capitalism it was its most loyal servant.  One of socialism’s main achievements was to help transform capitalism into an institutional process.  Then for a few decades the institutions took charge, and generated a more equalitarian culture, which undercut status and threatened the power of the class that was running not only society but also the institutions themselves (The Organization Man is a product of the fears that the “social ethic” produced amongst the elite). In the 1960s a combination of new industries and increasing social conflict allowed the shareholders and the CEOs to take back control of the institutions; and to create for really the first time a purely class-based society.

*High culture is now one of the commodities that rich people buy; the quantity of their consumption the sign of their status.  The simplification of that culture - particularly in Art which has become barely distinguishable from more popular forms - has facilitated such commercial usage, for no longer must we acquire an education to comprehend it.  Populism reduces culture to the understanding of the average man or woman; which effectively means that a work of art is expected to produce an emotional but not an intellectual response.

† Multiculturalism also seems closely tied to cultural populism; thus its determination to reduce culture to mere surface decoration.  Although its success is not due solely to ignorance and the unwillingness to spend the time to properly explore different modes of being.  There is also the fear of radical differences in mental outlook.   A black woman from Barbados is acclaimed because of her Caribbean cooking; a Nigerian man for the traditional robes he wears (to some corporate event). However, neither may publicly express their views on life if they contradict the ideology of the age (and therefore the firm). 

In the public realm significant differences of meaning are tolerated only if they do not challenge the assumptions on which the official ideology rests.  Where there are real fundamental differences in values, and where they do conflict with those of the majoritarian culture, they are suppressed; mostly by opinion, and occasionally by legislation. 

To give a concrete example.  In one organisation a white middle class male prides himself on his tolerance by removing leaflets from the reception area that advocates evangelical Christianity and attacks abortion and homosexuality.  He thinks he is being liberal and progressive, and a very nice person.  He has no idea that he is affronting his largely black staff, who lack the power and therefore the confidence to challenge him.  He thinks he is a saint but he is behaving like a commissar.  And… although this man is imposing a set of ideas onto a largely passive and often alienated audience he has the irrepressible power of conventional opinion to support him.  He thus cannot fail both to exert his will and to feel good about himself.

It is here that we can see the value of populism for elites.  It has become a useful tool to control a population in the interests of both the state and the corporations, both of which are threatened by collective entities who take religion, ideas and culture seriously.♦︎ 

♦︎ For an acute analysis of the way modern society empties religion of meaning and shapes it into an image of itself see Olivier Roy’s Holy Ignorance.  He calls this process of voiding the content of religion and culture “formatting”.

liii.  Scruton mistakes the culture of the plutocracy for that of the middle classes who still retain many of the values of the older bourgeoisie.

liv.  I need to qualify this statement. During the rebellions of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the institutions became more responsive to the public.  However, in the last decade they seem to have recovered their confidence to become as insulated and as impervious as they were in the 1950s.  Indeed, we could argue that the populist camouflage has made it even more difficult to penetrate behind their façades.  Once again Kafka returns to elucidate our plight; The Castle a glorious myth that captures both the opacity and the random rationality of large bureaucracies.

Although we must be careful…  Most people for most of the time are quite happy with such a situation.  Economic populism works because it is successful and…yes!…popular.  It is the outsiders, the misfits and the meaning-mongers who are alienated from a corporate capitalism that would deny their existence.  John Stuart Mill, although looking at it from a political perspective, prophesied such a future, believing that the danger of mass democracy was that the conventional opinions of the overwhelmingly large majority would snuff out the ideas of a small minority.  His belief, which was essentially a theory of knowledge, was that for a society to progress it needs rebels to question the prevailing wisdom, with its tendency to deny alternative opinions, producing stasis and bureaucratic formalism (On Liberty).  

If he is right we must look more closely at the universities and intellectual life more generally.  We must ask this question: is the rise of the corporate state, with its reliance on new technology, destroying the wellspring of its wealth by forcing the educational profession to behave and think like itself?  Are we, like the Soviet Union before us, turning into an engineering society (where software replaces machines as the main industrial product) in which the mainstream intellectual life becomes sterile?  Michael Billig’s book and MM McCabe’s lecture would suggest that there are dark times ahead.

lv.  Deconstruction and related ills.  See David Lehman’s Signs of the Times; The Fall of Paul de Man.  This book should be read in conjunction with Michael Billig’s Learn to Write Badly.  Together they show how deconstruction is merely one of a myriad of academic movements that seek to monopolise market share within the academic marketplace.

For a brilliant allegory of revolution, which shows how libertarianism induces authoritarianism, read Heinrich von Kleist’s The Earthquake in Chile (in The Marquis of O - And Other Stories). Absolute freedom can only be a temporary affair.  Very quickly it will be turned into its opposite; for the free man of today creates the conditions of tomorrow’s tyranny.

lvi.  We need think of different kinds of rationalities, each one relating to the world in a qualitatively different way.  Max Weber’s distinction between substantive and formal rationality is especially useful for our purposes.

Bureaucrats tend to use formal rationality; while workers and CEO’s must use the substantive kind. Although the rationality of the CEO is closer to that of the artist; a person who creates rational structures out of values and intuitions.  Looked at in this way, we can see the 1960s as a conflict between three types of reason.  

Which won?  

Substantive rationality appears to have lost ground, especially with the relative decline of industry in the West.  It is formal rationality that has increased in influence, although the administrators and middle managers have lost power to the senior executive team, who themselves now increasingly think with bureaucratic reason.  This may account for the somewhat unreal feel of much corporate discourse - it is a language that often refers to nothing outside of itself.  Advertising, and a fear of polluting the brand, are of course major causes of such corporate vagueness, even vacuity.  But there is more to it than this.  Inside many large companies we see senior managers who are unable to think substantively - their minds work only through abstractions, formal methods and statistical patterning.  The increasing influence of the financial industries, where money has been turned into an abstract relation, is highly conducive to such a mindset, which seems destined to control the culture.*  Formal rationality will then conquer our minds, and we will live in a community of logical fictions which we believe to be actual things.  If this were to occur we will become exactly like the primitive man that Lévy-Bruhl mistakenly believed him to be.

* The essentially fictional nature of modern money is bought out in David Harvey’s The Enigma of Capital; John Lancaster’s Whoops! and Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men who Stole the World. For a good account of the origins of contemporary international finance see Fred Hirsch's Money International, which argues that even in the 19th century money was not entirely backed by a nation’s gold reserves; its value was at least in part a social convention.  

Shaxson’s book suggests that even our laws are becoming fictions - their formal enactment appeases an embittered public; but their actual content is eviscerated by the executive class. Andrew Feinstein’s book on the arms trade reaches very similar conclusions (The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade).

lvii.  Compare with this description of the American education system by William H. Whyte.

…the curriculum he will take is just about as far removed from fundamental education as it is possible to get.  Nor is it likely to change for the better in the foreseeable future.  There has been much criticism recently of the fact that teachers colleges are far more interested in technique of pedagogy, personality adjustment, audio-visual expertise, and the like than the content of what is supposed to be taught, but the criticism has had little tangible effect. Teachers-college people are baffled and hurt by it, but a fairly exhaustive reading of current literature in the field fails to reveal any disposition to constructive self-criticism on this score.  Quite the contrary, some leaders in teacher education have been saying that there is still too much content.

Such an education is ideal for a bureaucrat - because for them a subject’s content is less important than the methods and the procedures that are used to organise it.  Barthes’ theories are the application of such a mentality onto (literary) material that should resist them.  He writes like a bureaucrat when he should be thinking like an artist.  I can’t resist Whyte’s conclusion:

It is now well evident that a large proportion of the younger people who will one day be in charge of our secondary-school system are precisely those with the least aptitude for education of all Americans attending college. (Emphasis in the original)

lviii.  Michael Billig describes how social scientists create what are essentially fictional worlds through their reliance on abstractions which they believe are real things.  I believe he is right.  Although in at least one sense they are real things - because academics use them as a currency to acquire funds; thereby maintaining their own employment and promoting their reputations. 

One unstated consequence, which is implicit in his analysis, is that the more vacuous the idea - the more things to which it can be applied - the greater will be its academic popularity; because it will increase the citation count; the mechanism by which academics are rated.  One example Michael Billig gives is the word “governmentality”;*1 which seems ideally suited to the purpose.  To this layman’s eyes this “concept” is just another word for culture, defined as a society’s customs and intellectual habits; but with this added twist: it is produced by the institutions of Power, which over time are conditioned by the ideas and processes that they themselves have created.  An active agent - Power - is thus gradually turned into a passive victim of abstract forces, which is where the real authority lies.  Nothing new or controversial here.  Anyone familiar with the anthropological literature will realise that such ideas have been conceived and investigated since at least the beginning of the 20th century.   All that has changed is the word.  Samuel Johnson was scathing about such linguistic games.

The shame is to impose words for ideas upon ourselves or others.  To imagine that we are going forward when we are only turning round. (Review of Soame Jenyns in Major Works)

One of the issues not fully explored in Billig's immensely interesting and stimulating book is the difference between ideas as ideas; ideas treated as facts; ideas believed to be things, and ideas as things.  Instead, the professor tends to group them all together under one label - reification; a term which even includes someone acting out a role.*2  

We could represent the intellectual journey from the first (ideas as ideas) to the last (ideas as things) as the rise and fall of the educational movement over the last three hundred years.  This movement really took off in the 19th century; and appears to have reached its peak in the 1960s, when educators really did believe it could take over the society (J.K. Galbraith’s The New Industrial Society is a very clear expression of this view).  That attempt failed.  Since the 1980s education has become the servant of the dominant social force of the time - corporate capitalism -, which itself has become infected by the worse aspects of educational practice: think of the audit culture in our public institutions.  

So much has changed! 

In the 19th century the advancement of popular education was closely tied to the Nonconformist Liberals and had its own evangelical faith. Education was a religion.  After reaching its apogee in the 1960s the faith declined and the movement was gradually transformed into an institution.  It became a bureaucracy.  Today there is no belief left. It is why Billig can write: 

This is an age of academic mass publication, and certainly not a time for academic idealists. 

*1 According to Billig the profession believes that Foucault coined this term.  Wrong!  It seems to have been invented by Roland Barthes as a self-conscious neologism and possibly a joke.  Here is his definition:

…the Government presented by the national press as the Essence of efficacy. (Mythologies)

*2 For a case study about the complexities of role-playing see all my pieces on Effi Briest; and especially One Smile, It was an Earthquake.

lix.  See my arguments about Deleuze and Guattari in Dropout Boogie.

lx.  The word is, of course, Foucault’s (see in particular his The Order of Things: Archaeology of the Human Sciences).  I am using it in a slightly different way to indicate three periods of time when there appeared to be an underlying unity of thought in the society.

Although this downplays the plasticity of Barthes’ mind. In an early book, Writing Degree Zero, he actually argues for a real presence beyond our words; thus his brilliant opening paragraph.

Hébert, the revolutionary, never began a number of his news-sheet Le Pére Duchêne without introducing a sprinkling of obscenities.  These improprieties had no real meaning, but they had significance.  In what way?  In that they expressed a whole revolutionary situation.  Now here is an example of a mode of writing whose function is no longer only communication or expression, but the imposition of something beyond language, which is both History and the stand we take in it.

Four epistemes? No!  Five! 

In Mythologies Roland Barthes is the dogmatic Communist who believes the Left has no real (as opposed to minor and therefore unreal) myths.  And yet he holds to the biggest myth of the 20th century: the worker is the source of authenticity in the modern world.  There is a real presence in the universe: it exists inside a coal miner's body.

lxi. This new kind of bureaucracy needed a class of people; one that in Europe was largely formed in the 1960s.  In Freedom Against Freedom I assumed this new class was a product of that decade. Whyte’s The Organization Man shows that it already existed in the 1950s in America; with the postwar prosperity encouraging the growth of large and stable corporations. 

In his section on suburbia Whyte picks out some of the core characteristics of this new class: transient (they move around a lot); an intense desire to belong which manifests itself in emotionally close but at the same time intellectually superficial behaviour (a good example is the United Protestant Church; a new denomination, which, by downplaying doctrine and concentrating on religious practice, was able to absorb many disparate sects); self-awareness (these characters know they conform and are ironic about it); and guilt about publicly expressing their own individuality, especially when it involves high culture (to advertise a qualitatively different mind, especially if it is perceived as in some way superior is, it seems, to create a social danger).*1

They stay in a suburb for a relatively short period of time and are great joiners of communities. However, these communities require little intellectual or cultural depth (risky with so many people from different backgrounds) but lots of commitment.  One consequence is that the content of (especially their mental) life is thinned out: these suburbanites do a wide variety of activities that at base are very similar - the differences are only superficial.  The meaning resides in the doing of stuff, but not much else.  To do is to be.

Those who have been ‘brought out’ bear witness to the transformation.  They speak enthusiastically of it, and if their experience had to be summed up in a phrase, it would boil down to one heartfelt note of joy: they weren't introverts after all.  (William H. Whyte)

Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road perfectly captures the world Whyte describes.  In the 1960s the children of suburbia rebelled.  However, their call for a new utopia was really a plea for their childhoods to continue.  Their Marxism - think of the gemeinschaft bias of the New Left - was the corporate life of the suburb abstracted into revolutionary rhetoric.  Born into paradise they didn't want to leave it.  But Eden could only remain if the corporations were to disappear.  

This is unkind.  However, we must remember that these radicals could not think outside the forms of thought their parents had created for them; these thought forms originating in the social structure of the modern corporation and the suburbs it helped build. The intellectuals were no different.  The Rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari is actually a paean to the suburban lifestyle.*2 

The radicalism of the 1960s facilitated the spread of American capitalism by propagating its culture and by smashing up the older cultures that were a bulwark against its influence.  After the revolution failed the Marxist ideas faded, but the intellectual framework that lay behind them came to dominate the political and academic establishments of the West; today’s multiculturalism eerily reminiscent of the monoculture that Whyte describes in Park Forest and other newly manufactured places.

*1 There is surely a connection here with the contemporary desire for cultural and social egalitarianism; a desire which really explodes during the 1960s and 70s.  The particular kind of education the bourgeoisie receive makes them uneasy about differences in mental capacity which exposes the superficiality of both their knowledge and their intellectual practice.  

If this idea is correct, and I believe it is, the anti-elitism of the 1960s can be seen as coming not from socialism but from within the very nature of modern education itself; whose purpose is to produce people who are of roughly similar intelligence and mentality.  By a process of natural selection the quality of education will have a tendency to be lowered to the average mental capacity of its most dominant social class - in the 1960s this would have been the bourgeoisie (later it included a far wider section of the population, especially in the universities). The student troubles of this decade arose out of a conflict between this modern type of education, which they would have absorbed both at school and at home, and an older one shaped around scholarly virtuosity found in the ancient universities. The students were largely successful, although if we look only at the surface ideology it appears that they failed.  

† Ernest Gellner is particularly good on the functional aspect of formal education, and how it produces a type of person that can be trained to carry out a range of different but essentially similar tasks.  See in particular his Nations and Nationalism.

*2  See my Dropout Boogie for more details.  There are also two important books on this topic by Richard Sennett: Culture of the the New Capitalism and The Corrosion of Character: Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism.

† This lifestyle has since mutated into more extreme forms:

Like most such online relationships, the friendship between the three cyber pals was fragmented and based on a minimal, yet intense, intimacy.  They did not know where each other lived; what their socio-economic backgrounds were; or what they looked like… (Misha Glenny, McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime)

The internet is the ideal instrument to bring the 1950’s American suburb to the world and its working classes.

lxii.  Billig shows how social science departments now behave like capitalist enterprises; thus even the words used to describe intellectual findings are the same as those in adverts selling products.  His conclusion is sad: much academic activity is designed to think up words that can be sold to acquire government grants or win corporate sponsorship.  The social science department no longer the place to visit if we want to understand the world; it has become a factory that manufactures meaningless abstract nouns which it sells to irrational and ill-informed consumers.  In this sense deconstruction was right.  The world is all language.  Although it made a small but devastating mistake: it assumed the world outside the university is the same as the one inside it.  It isn’t.  If only the deconstructive critics had applied their analysis to themselves they would have given us real knowledge.*

* They are strangely reminiscent of Lévy-Bruhl and the 19th century anthropologists I discuss above.  An intellectual, it seems, doesn’t so much comprehend a qualitatively different world as project his own peculiar one onto it.

† For a discussion of such a character see my Civilised Bigotry.

lxiii.  Schopenhauer puts it nicely: academics learn the concepts before they experience life;*1  they thus get the relationship between them the wrong way round.*2  

Michael Billig brings the story up to date: academics are initiated into sub-disciplines which they are expected to serve and expand.  The sub-discipline therefore becomes more important that anything else, including truth to reality.

*1 An excellent account is given in Bryan Magee’s Schopenhauer

*2 This practice largely accounts for the intellectual solipsism I discuss in the previous footnote.  Indeed, one of the problems of education is that it is essentially learned behaviour. Critical thought is a secondary (and often unwelcome) attribute.

lxiv.  Who has a wonderful insight on Barthes.  After describing the early influence of Sartre Merquior goes on to conclude:

Barthes simply injected the high moral pitch of the Sartreanism, originally concerned with subjects and consciousness, into the register of semiotics, the land of signs.  The conceptual weaponry changed - but the existentialist pathos is the same.

lxv.  Always we have to make a distinction between the original ideas and the movement that comes to worship them.  Freud’s work is not theology.  It was his disciples that made it so.

lxvi.  Note: this is not a criticism.  We need these intellectual movements.  Although we should never completely succumb to them.  They can only ever be a part-explanation of the world.

lxvii. See Proust’s comments on intelligent readers in my Saw Your Site. Liked it. Thought I’d, um…add a comment… Instead… Yes… Exactly.

lxviii.  For an interesting book on the influence of the new media on art see Christopher Finch’s Image as Language; Aspects of British Art 1950-1968.

lxix.  But note!  This hole was consciously created by Resnais.

lxxThe author’s evident conviction of his own innocence, like his earlier belief that he had been discharged from hospital, may be taken as an expression of hope for the future.  Meanwhile he continues with his busy round of activities in the Unit of Criminal Psychopathy, constructing his bizarre ‘aircraft’ and tirelessly editing the footnotes with which he has annotated so many of the medical textbooks in the library.  As all these books are out-of-date, like the 1972 BP Codex, little harm is done.  Most of his complex annotations have been shown to be complete fictions, an endlessly unravelling web of imaginary research work, medical personalities and the convoluted and sometimes tragic interrelationships of their private lives.  Occasionally, however, they describe with unusual clarity a sequence of events that might almost have taken place.  The patient seems trapped between what his psychiatrists call ‘paradoxical faces’, each image of himself in the mirror reinforcing that in the glass behind him.  The separation of the two will only be achieved by the appearance of the as yet incomplete document Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, of which we possess only an 18-word synopsis and its set of footnotes.  It seems possible that although the synopsis conceals a maze of lies and distortions, it is a simple and incontrovertible statement of the truth. (J.G. Ballard, War Fever)

No comments:

Post a Comment