Led Zeppelin were playing when we walked in. Nothing has changed! Thirty years and I return to the music of my youth. I look around, and recognise the same faces, the same clothes, the same casual eagerness; and yes, that same easy confidence is still there. Nothing has altered. Only the accents are a little more homogenous than before. All the differences belong to me. The most obvious is the most terrifying - I look into the mirror of these pretty faces to see the uglinesses of age. I panic. A friend tries to calm be down. It is no use. I stupidly ask for a black marker and an eraser… Gently she tells me what a fool I am. Time, she says, is not a badly written exercise we can rub out and start again. So wise. I do not listen; of course I do not. I am crying on the floor when an old couple walks past. Glory be to God Almighty! I get up. Wave. And blow kisses in their direction. My friend pulls me down with her gentle sardonic smile.
A university is an Eden, where adolescence lives on for all eternity. Time has actually stopped on this campus; around about 1974, is what I roughly calculate, based on this brief visit. My friends certainly felt it. Tonight we have come to enjoy a few hours of nostalgia. Though we need to keep our irony close at hand - for should we really be feeling sentimental about a bunch of perverts and sexual predators? But we cannot help it. What a joy it is! For time civilises all things; turning a once aggressively avant-garde play into a homely period piece that even grandma can watch. The 1970s. What days they were! A decade when transgression was as innocent as an episode of Blue Peter.1
As a teenager I thought about literature only through the filter of politics. Insensitive to the shades of meaning that exist between the words - literature evokes meaning it doesn't denote it, a lesson it took me a decade at least to learn - I needed some big ideas to take the place of these invisible mysteries. Politics was the perfect helpmeet and substitute. A child of the times, I grew up in a decade still experiencing the excitement of political evangelicalism, I therefore had plenty of help around. The radicals only too willing to tell me that artists are the fools of Capitalism and the servants of the exploiting classes.2 It seemed so exciting back then. We could be rebels. And at virtually no cost. It was so much fun. And we were so righteous! Because of course we were on the side of the Good and the Just. We knew that we were right. Knowledge and Reason were our allies. Anybody who stood against us was without question stupid, ignorant and silly; or worse: we suspected that most of our enemies were covert Nazis; their liberalism undoubtedly a sham. It was all so easy. We were going to change the world with our words. Well, not quite our’s exactly; Marx’s, Gramsci’s, Althusser’s…3
Tonight, as I listen to Led Zeppelin, I return to these times, and I wonder: could I really have been such a klutz. Did I really think all that?
When the song ends I have my answer….
Sometime in the 1970s artists decided they would be fooled no longer. A few became activists, taking Bertie Brecht to the workingmen’s clubs, while others used their art to educate the bourgeoisie about capitalist exploitation. But long lectures on the trade cycle, with particular reference to Britain and South America in the late 19th century, will not attract vast or enthusiastic crowds. Even I would struggle with such a subject; especially if taught by Karl Kautsky. Education is a risky business. Entertainment is safer.
But art cannot just entertain. It must have a meaning. The subtler this meaning the richer the work. By itself politics is far too obvious a subject to retain the interest of a sophisticated audience. Its didacticism bores. Therefore, even a political play needs something more than politics to keep it interesting. In the 1970s the extra ingredient was sexual transgression.4 An author able to both instruct and hold her audience by shocking them. Caryl Churchill is a master of this tactic.
Even then there is a problem. The atmosphere of the lecture hall tends hangs about political discussions; especially when given by the Left, who reflexively assume they are an elite whose duty is to educate the ignorant and passive mass about the means of their salvation. Poor misguided souls! They know the secret, and they want to tell us everything about it. But…in a theatre they are only talking to the uncomprehending bourgeoisie. Such contradictions are easily resolved. These hierophants know they must condescend to their audience; so they dress up their lectures in bright colours and populate them with caricatures and simple slogans. A political farce an ideal instrument for their purposes. To underscore the point the genders are mixed-up and the characters to speak in Capital Letters about Marriage, Empire and Duty. For by now everyone knows that the meaning of these words has changed. The British Empire? Only fools and Fascists can believe in that.
By the late seventies even a moderately sophisticated bourgeois would know to treat the ideas of their parents with irony and ridicule. The imperial mission no longer believed to be a noble ideal but a racist enterprise that camouflaged sexual repression. A new Bible had even been written to explain the phenomenon - Orientalism by Edward Said.5
Revolution was the piety of the age. In the 1970s Socialism, Sexual Liberation and Feminism became our Duty, Marriage and the White Man’s Burden. The first act of Cloud 9 seems unaware of this obvious fact. It is a Victorian farce whose content has been turned inside out to reveal the sexual desire and hysteria that lay behind the facade of a 19th century British family; Africa merely the setting for the acting out of these neurasthenic tendencies. Here is a play that could have been written in the 1890s; if the author had knew his Sigmund Freud. The form of this work is the same as the older model. It is only the content that is different. A change due to the intellectual context only. In each case it is the intellectual environment that supplies the fashionable ideas that the attuned authors pick up and insert into their satires. In this play all the “radical stuff” is external to the playwright; its contents merely the conventional wisdom of the times. There is no radical or profound thought in this act, where, we could argue, Caryl Churchill writes like an exemplary Victorian.
Freud, once an outcast and eccentric, had by the 1970s become a highly respectable figure; an acknowledged scientist and a guru to the beau monde.6
Adultery. Homosexuality. Child abuse. All the taboos are broken. And yet how easy this transgression feels.7 There is no cost. It is too easy. It is why we smile and laugh, and eventually applaud with enthusiasm. Later we think of a different kind of play… Written in 1972 it upholds the values of a white nuclear family living in Kenya in the 1900s. This play has a variety of nuanced views about Empire - maybe the author was the son of a talented ethnographer - and includes a highly critical attack on a tribal chief, who uses his tribe’s traditions to maintain a conservatism that protects his own tyranny (colonial rule having loosened much of the control mechanisms of the culture so giving leaders more free power). We think about this play, and we wonder if the National Theatre would have staged it.8 Such a work would have been a controversial choice, going against the religious fervour of that Left-inspired decade, when truth was reduced to a single meaning - the moral decrepitude of an imperial British culture.9 The Empire, defunct and helpless, the perfect victim for the bully boys of the Marxist Left and the Libertarian Right. In such an intellectual climate there is nothing dangerous about this farce at all; as evidenced by the giggles of the student audience; a testimony to the authenticity of the performance. This play is safe.
The second act is much stronger.10 Playing with time Churchill transposes the attitudes of the 1970s onto the children of these Victorian parents. A wonderful conceit that allows for more nuance and drama - collapsing a century into a few decades exaggerates the generational conflict, and changes an evolutionary process into a revolutionary cataclysm. But we wonder: can society really be explained by reducing everything to a familial quarrel between the parents and their children?11
The same actors play different roles, which produces odd effects. The patriarch Clive becomes the girl Kathy; Betty the ideal wife is turned into a gay man; the feminine son metamorphoses into the liberated mother; while the Victorian matriarch is transformed into a typical middle class woman of the 1970s, who plays with the freedoms of the time. The charismatic adventurer who represents the imperial ideal, while shagging anything with an orifice, is now the fashionable intellectual who uses the cliches of Feminism to dominate and control his liberal spouse. The black servant (who is of course white in the first act - yes, it is that obvious) is turned into a bit of rough from the working classes. Only the actress who plays two characters in the farce - the independent and highly sexed Mrs Saunders and the inhibited Ellen - remains the same. She fuses both types to become a self-confident and brassy lesbian.
In these transpositions we see both change and continuity. The Victorian father has been reduced to a girlie child. It is the revenge of the Left-wing radical. The feminine ideals of the 19th century are now merely the camp of the 20th - Betty, the classic Victorian wife, is turned into the effeminate Edward. Vicky doesn’t change. She will always remain the victim of conventional opinion. It is why she so easily accepts the obnoxious Martin, and so quickly responds to Lin’s sexual invitation. It is no surprise that she reads The Female Eunuch. As one of the cast remarked afterwards: there is nothing there. Martin is still the same. Once again he uses the fashionable ideas to hide his power urges, which are mostly sexual in nature. The one difference, which is important, is that his adventures now take place inside his mind; it is in ideology where we will find today’s rogues. Gerry remains in an ambiguous position, both serving and dominating his superiors. Lin, in contrast, has truly revolutionised her situation. Not only has she come out, but she is in charge. She knows what she wants. She wants to shag Vicky. And she does. Feminism is on the march!
There is one transformation I haven’t mentioned. I will come back to that later.
As evidenced by the generous use of the word “fuck”, these characters are free to express their sexual desires. When Ellen wanted to be Betty’s lover, although she talked of touching and kissing, she expressed herself through ideas about love. Lin, by contrast, reduces everything to the body. In a London park she asks Vicky straight out to have sex. No romance here. Just the prospect of two cunts rubbing against each other to produce the friction of sexual ecstasy.12 Gerry is equally forthright. He opens the second act by telling a story about a man sucking him off on a train. How he enjoyed it! until...the man started to talk to him. The cultured (that is the specifically human) aspects of life have become suspect. Betty also tells a sexually explicit story: it is about her rediscovery of masturbation. We are in Fassbinder territory, where characters speak into the distance and transgression is the norm. Here, Vicky ends up in bed with not only Lin but her brother Edward; who decides he is a lesbian.
The transformation between the two acts is so great, and the urge to break all taboos so strong, that we feel that the writer hasn't worked upon her material - she is little more than a radio transmitter automatically receiving the signals from the zeitgeist. Once again we think of Churchill as a conventional writer, merely playing back to the audience what it already thinks and feels. She is Rudyard Kipling resurrected; but with the contents of his work changed and the moral polarities reversed.13
But odd things start happening…
So that by the end of the play the moral becomes vague and uncertain. Sex, it appears, doesn't bring liberation after all. Edward wants to be a housewife. His lover at first rejects such a “marriage”, but later finds he cannot live without him. Vicky, despite her own transgressions, continues to hate her mother and worries over her son. Lin, meanwhile, is haunted by her dead brother and is confused about her own and her daughter’s identities - despite her mother’s masculinity Kathy is growing up to be a typical girl. Only with Martin are there no doubts: he is in free fall.
The Empire of the white male is in severe decline. We are not sure what will replace it. Certainly not some happy commune. For we assume that both Tommy and Kathy will rebel against their parents, and reject their styles of life.
The 1970s is not a utopia. Indeed, its beliefs and practices are as much a fantasy as the Victorian farce. The title surely alludes to this - isn't it a nod to Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic spheres? The ideas have changed. But this is all. The old orthodoxies have been overturned, but they have been replaced by new ones that are equally silly and fantastic. The cult of sex, the mother goddess, the feminist husband… We remember Harry and Clive hiding their licentiousness behind calls of Marriage and Duty and Imperial Destiny. Just as these ideas disintegrated under the impact of the simple exigencies of daily existence, so the ideals of sexual and gender liberation will crumble when confronted with the banalities of desire and loneliness.
The second act, because it so loudly suggests the utopian ideal but then quietly undercuts it, contains much unsettling ambiguity, and is thus far more interesting than the first. In a wonderful scene Martin dominates Vicky by using the language of feminism to both confuse her mind and destroy her identity. How do you cope with a man who at once proclaims himself woman and victim? But Vicky too exercises power. She too cannot escape her class or her education; unconsciously trying to impose her worldview onto a woman who feels far more than she thinks. Lin cannot handle these abstractions or the endless desire to talk about feelings. Such talk oppresses her. Vicky doesn't recognise her own power. She is oblivious to how language itself is form of colonialism; of the quiet kind, favoured by the professional bourgeoisie, who will often couch it in terms of fairness and equality.14 For Lin kisses, cuddles, an outburst of rage, followed by an orgasm will sort out most problems (her’s is a narrowly domestic world). Stop talking. You confuse me… Words, we are discovering, can be more powerful than actions.15
We wonder. For all this talk of sex doesn't the will to power still predominate in this liberated society? The men still rule (at least within conventional marriages), while the bourgeoisie continue to dominate the workers. Although it is discourse not guns that are now the favoured weapons of oppression.
This is a more subtle and acute message; one which saves the play from the banalities of agitprop. But we wonder if such a meaning is communicated to the audience. Are we too dazzled by the varieties of transgression to see the absurdity of an ideology that is cleverly camouflaged by its straight realism?
Act Two is as much a fantasy as Act One. Churchill has tricked us into believing that the latter is merely common sense reality. When Lin, Vicky and Edward sit in the park calling up the magic of holy prostitutes and inviting strangers to an orgy they are as absurd as Clive abusing his wife in the name of Queen Victoria. Both are deflated by the bathos of the situation. In the park it is Martin who is being unwittingly invited to group sex; the depressive ex-husband letting the air out of the balloon… It is marriage now, or more precisely, the feelings surrounding a failed marriage, that exposes the silliness of the ideas of free love and communal sex. We have come full circle. The 1970s a mirror image of the 1890s.
The play ends in a moment of reconciliation. Betty, who is played by two characters - one is a man who exaggerates her femininity and makes it hysterical -, embraces herself. Through her own efforts, and particularly through divorcing Clive, she has found liberation. Betty is learning to live alone, and she has also recovered her sexual desire. She has acquired maturity, and is able, with the confidence in her own opinions, to at last criticise the ideas that once conditioned her character. And yet…she doesn't traduce her younger self; that Victorian hysteric. Betty is all of a piece. Her sensibility has evolved through time, with all the weaknesses this entails - such slow development often sacrifices too much to the prevailing norms and manners. Nevertheless, such evolution is the best means of maintaining a person’s integrity; for the very process of growth and development is what creates our individual selves. We are not born as free men and women. Neither are we given it as a gift on our eighteenth birthday. No! No! No! We have to work to acquire our freedom; every day and all the time. What a struggle it is; one that requires numerous compromises with our place, our times, and with other people. It is not a thing to acquire. No, not all. It is a fraught and unfinished journey, which only we can plan, organise and undertake. Freedom. It requires the full exercise of our powers;16 and it needs a large stage on which to perform. Only the wider society can be that stage. There is perpetual tension. Such free activity can only occur through negotiated conflicts with the social environment; a daily occurrence that demands an accommodation with the mores of each and every zeitgeist.17 We cannot live like hermits. To insulate ourselves from our time is to live incarcerated within our too narrow personalities. We have to be free in each one of our decades. To do so we must change too. We must absorb the new ideas and the new ways of living that arise with every generation. We need a fine and subtle filter; one that allows in those influences that are valuable to us, but which protects our inner being from the clichés of the age. Desire plays a part in such growth. But we must not exaggerate its importance. Betty’s release is due far more to her socially evolved self, one that she has acquired through her lifetime, than her recovered sexuality. Betty’s early femininity as much part of her as that reinvigorated clitoris.
To be free we have to think for ourselves and ditch the pieties of even our most creative period; a time when these ideas appear so new and radical and so self-evident. But we must not turn away from all its influences; Betty using the sexual revolution of the 1970s to free herself from the oppressive orthodoxies of her own youth.
What a play! Yet I had written it off after ten minutes. That Victorian farce so rebarbative and mean. It reminds us how nasty the Left can be.
(Review: Cloud 9. Performed by the UEA Drama Society on February 6th 2015)
1. The diaries of Kenneth Tynan captures the theatrical milieu in the early 1970s. See also Simon Ford’s book on Throbbing Gristle - The Wreckers of Civilisation - and particularly the section on COUM Transmissions.
2. Tynan is an amazing example. Here is a man at the heart of the establishment who yet wants to destroy it. Moreover, such beliefs are accepted as quite normal within Tynan’s vast social circle, which included Princess Margaret as a close friend.
But the imp of a question jumps up: if the elite were radical… Of course of course… By 1975 “radical” had changed its meaning. By now it meant only a recognition of Britain’s relative decline - feared in some places to be absolute - and an argument for the “radical” rejuvenation of the country. Social democracy had become everybody’s favourite punch bag. The prizefighters included The New Left; The New Right; The Old Left; the anarchists; the old colonels and their private armies….
Tynan is just following the crowd. His socialism a symptom of personal decline rather than inspirational thought; a way of knocking a system that appears to be defeating him. Tynan, like so many gifted and precocious individuals who lose their talents somewhere in their 30s, projects his own morbidity onto the society around him; which is then condemned for its mediocrity and moral collapse.
Tynan was brilliant but never profound. He was therefore never a truly rebellious thinker or writer. His own description: “Be light, stinging, insolent and melancholy.” At his best he was the herald of the new zeitgeist; his taste always slightly ahead of his audience. But as he grew older the time lag between him and his readers decreased until by the early 1970s it is he who is following the fashions not leading them. Tynan had burnt out long before his early death. He knew it. His diaries a threnody to the gifted who die young. He should have gone sooner. His brilliance compressed into a short life-span, whose end is quick and clinical. He was a butterfly whose destiny was to be caught, pinned and labeled, and put into some museum drawer, where he will remain forever beautiful.*
*Tynan is a case study in the problems of precocity; the very hardness and brightness of his thoughts, thoughts which would captivate an undergraduate audience, is what prevents them from growing - because they lack the plasticity to change and evolve. Despite all their cleverness there is an emptiness in these diaries, which is confirmed by the author’s inability to write anything substantial during the time they were composed. His references to B.F. Skinner the most depressing in the book; Tynan professing to believe that his ideas are poured into him from the outside. Easy to see why he would blame society.
A stray cat wanders into my paragraphs…
3. Andrew Hussey’s biography of Guy Debord - The Game of War - captures this adolescent naivety, with its mixture of idealism, short-sightedness, intellectual arrogance and brutality. Although this book doesn't sufficiently analyse the nature of Debord and his circle, and takes too many of the ideas on trust and at face value, it nevertheless gives us an illuminating picture of a clever teenager who emotionally and intellectually never enters his twenties.
Debord’s early ideas, particularly those which wish to collapse the distinction between art and life, are parasitic on Breton’s Surrealism, and share exactly the same faults as the old master: they are too mechanical and therefore inherently prone to cliché and formula. Breton and Debord both seem to have a tin-ear when it comes to literature (and to thought generally); thus their tendency to favour the words of a poem to the atmosphere those words generate (one of the problems of Surrealism is its over-literalism of the image, which gives it an adolescent quality). There is something hard and unyielding about their thought that is reflected in their authoritarian behaviour - they expect others to change, while they remain absolute in their self-belief.
Breton and Debord highlight the problem of art in the twentieth century; a time when its essence was lost to ideological discourse, often of a political nature. Art was turned into ideas (both Breton and Debord were intellectuals not artists or thinkers); a process massively exaggerated by the rise of the university (see my Critic as Clerk).
There is the suspicion that art and literature meant nothing to Debord. The following statement is so untrue that we begin to wonder…
In this age of museums in which artistic communication is no longer possible, all the previous expressions of art can be accepted equally, because whatever particular communication problems they have had are eclipsed by all the present-day obstacles to communication in general. (Society of the Spectacle. Italics in original.)
…if he is incapable of non-discursive thought. For Guy Debord art is a blank wall, upon which he writes his own graffiti.
4. Tynan’s diaries makes the connection explicit.
5. For a marvellous antidote to Said’s book read Gérard de Nerval’s Journey to the Orient.
6. We are not surprised to discover that Tynan was paid to write a book about Freud’s maverick disciple Wilhem Reich.
7. See Anthony Julius’ Transgressions: The Offences of Art for how widespread and reflexive the idea of transgression has become in the art world.
8. Especially when Tynan worked there.
For a novel that describes the realities and ambiguities of the British Empire read Sam Selvon’s A Brighter Sun.
9. Even the New Right shared this idea.* Thatcher and Blair both hated Britain, whose unique culture had began to radically decay during 1950s. Both were revolutionists who wanted to destroy a society that, through its poor economic growth, was causing the country to lose international power.**
Tynan was of the same revolutionary opinion. He could never quite see that all the things he liked - the vaudeville and the popular theatre of the 1940s - was predicated on this wider cultural tradition.***
One of the most extreme versions of this negation was Guy Debord. His entire vision amounted to nothing more than simple destruction. Henri Lefebvre called his ideas a “dogma without a dogma”. Debord is reminiscent of Lenin between the February and October revolutions when his only purpose was to destroy the Russian state. Of course in the wake of that destruction the arch bureaucrat took over and instigated a reign of terror and set up a hideous bureaucratic machine. This is not a contradiction or anomaly. The revolutionary is a bureaucrat; but one who lacks institutional power.
The problems of Andrew Hussey’s biography is that he doesn’t see this at all. As a result he cannot separate out the genuinely interesting ideas of Situationism (which are not as original or brilliant as he believes - much of it is the common wisdom of the time) from the psychopathology of the man. Indeed, we could argue that the most interesting ideas that came out of this movement were precisely the bastard offspring that Debord disowned or obsessively abused (because they came from expelled members of the Situationist International, non-political hippies, and inspired lunatics). Too often Hussey is attracted by the romanticism of revolutionary violence; and so is unable to perceive the real nature of this terrible man; who was a bully, thug, and autocrat (he was also clever and witty, but these are hardly moral qualities). Nevertheless, the book is extremely valuable for showing the nastiness of this character; one who is an extreme, but not uncommon, example of many on the radical Left. The book also contains much unconscious comedy: Debord blaming the students for the failure of May 1968 (during which he would pop home for his wife to cook him dinner), even though it was they who created it. Debord prefers to attack people rather than understand the real nature of events and situations. We don’t go to such intellectuals to comprehend the world. No. They exist only to validate our own prejudices.
Hussey has very little historical sense, and seems not to have grasped the reality of revolutions, which create short-lived moments of blissful freedom, but which then are quickly destroyed by violence and counter-revolution; the latter, and Lenin is a good example, usually started by the Left. Debord is a model of his kind.
For a historically informed account of France, which highlights its political divisions and extremism, see Patrick Marnham’s The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost. The conclusion is somewhat forced but the early historical chapters are magnificent. The book is also very useful for dispelling numerous illusions about the French Resistance. One example: the Communist Party, though its unpopular assassination programme, used the German army to terrorise the French population.
*There is an argument that the New Right were little more than the Old Communist Left who had substituted orthodox economics for orthodox Marxism (many were former Marxists, while their thinking remained economically narrow and rigid. For empirical data to test this assertion have a look at Richard Cockett’s Thinking the Unthinkable: Think-tanks and the Economic Counter-revolution, 1931-83).
**For more comment see particularly the footnotes of my Critic as Clerk. An excellent political history is David Marquand’s Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy. He calls the culture of the elite that ruled Britain until the early 1960s: Whig imperialism.
*** For a wonderful example of Tynan’s sympathy see his masterly snapshot of Max Wall in the diaries.
10. Do we feel the influence of the then fashionable sitcom?
11. This, of course, is how the 1960s is usually explained. Such a view ignores the fact that most of the ideas of the 1960s were old ones; often carried over straight from the previous generation; Guy Debord being a perfect example - he belongs to the generation of the early 1950s. What was new about the 1960s is that previously radical or bohemian ideas became popularised (often through the new media). This changed their meaning; turning them into relatively safe life style choices for the majority of the young bourgeoisie. Hussey’s book inadvertently confirms this view.
For a short story that evokes a sense of these changes see The Albanian Virgin in Alice Munro’s Open Secrets.
12. For an extraordinary example of this contrast between sex and love see Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog 6. Magda: “when a woman wants a man she gets wet down there.” She then places Tomek’s shaking hands on the top of her thighs so that he can feel this wetness. Unable to control himself, he is a virgin and in love with her, he ejaculates into his pants. “Already? Ok. That is love.”
13. For a marvellous assessment of Kipling that identifies his debilitating fault - too much unnecessary detail - see Virginia Woolf’s Books and Portraits. Kipling has a mastery of technique and is the most imaginative of writers; and yet, except for a few stories, his work is too solid and flat; it contains no mysteries.
14. This worldview helped to create many little monsters. One such is the postmistress in Dekalog 6. She is confused by an anomaly, but instead of trying to understand it she shouts at and accuses the customer of fraud. Here is the sad reality of public institutions set up by the progressive classes to help the ordinary citizen. This post office an organisation where the original spirit has long since evaporated; to become a rigid bureaucracy ruled by self-righteous and bumptious officials. Here is the source, surely, of the 1960s revolt.
15. In the first act the behaviour of the characters undercuts their words; which by 1979 had lost their meaning and efficacy. Churchill’s view is that the language of Victorian morality was not able constrain people’s desires; which led to hypocrisy and a discourse evacuated of value.
In the 1970s the situation was very different. The ideology was still new and strong, and therefore had the power to control and mould not only a person’s character but their actions too. This produces numerous effects. One of them is illustrated in this play: the influence of the contemporary ideology is exaggerated (compare Debord with the people around him to see how minuscule in number are the pure and innocent even within a dedicated revolutionary group) while the historical strength of its opponent is grossly demeaned.
There is another issue we need to mention. The past exists only as knowledge for us; whereas the present is a lived experience. One result of this distinction is that our moral norms, which we take for granted, are reflexively projected back onto what effectively is a fiction - the past is reduced to a tiny and artificial collection of facts, ideas and images. The consequence is that historical figures are turned into caricatures; which we praise or lambast depending upon cultural whim. An excellent example of this point is the first act of this play.
To make history live we have to recreate it in the present. To do this we need intellectual sympathy, insight and analytic ability (we must both interrogate and rethink the past), and we have to combine these qualities with historical knowledge and craft. (For acute discussion see R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History; whose idea of history is very similar to an anthropologist’s concept of culture. See also Bernard Williams’ essay Human Rights and Relativism in the collection, In the Beginning Was the Deed: Realism and Moralism in Political Argument.)*
*In his discussion of how to deal with the past Williams has some very interesting things to say about ideas of a previous arcadia; the belief in morally integrated communities, where value is not separated from practical life. His view is that such “ethical nostalgia” is a fantasy. However, he hasn’t noticed that there are periods in history when such communities do actually exist - occasionally religious cults do actually take over a society; a recent example is the Bolsheviks in 1917. In the 1960s and 70s the New Left tried such a coup d’état; and although they failed politically, culturally they have achieved, to use one of their favourite words, hegemony. It is why the second act feels so up-to-date - Churchill could have written it last week.
The best theorist of this phenomenon is Ibn Khaldun, with his concept of asabiyah; the cohesive spirit of a small group that though its integrative and dynamic power gradually expands until is able to attract enough tribes to overrun a city or civilisation. After the conquest the spirit gradually declines, until the city returns to its original anomie. It is ripe for another group with another asabiyah to take it over… (The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History. See also Ernest Gellner’s Muslim Society.)
Caryl Churchill, we could argue, was, just like her Victorian forebears, a member of a religious movement that had grown so extensive and so powerful that it had taken over many of the institutions of the country, and was on the verge of taking over the rest of society; before it suffered the shocks and setbacks of the late 1970s. Two decades previously this movement was a little more than a cluster of disparate cults, that picked up ideas from the zeitgeist and distilled them into simple-minded and intolerant catechisms. Guy Debord’s Situationist International is one of the most extreme examples. And it is surely no coincidence that he noticed the sacralisation of modern life (in Society of the Spectacle, a book that has an undeserved status as a cult classic).
I’ll need to substantiate this last point, of course. First: originality. In 1938 R.G. Collingwood wrote:
…I became conscious of a change for the worse during the eighteen-nineties. The newspapers of the Victorian age made it their first business to give their readers full and accurate information about matters of public concern. Then came the Daily Mail, the first English newspaper for which the word ‘news’ lost its old meaning of facts which a reader ought to know if he was to vote intelligently, and acquired the new meaning of facts, or fictions, which it might amuse him to read. By reading such a paper, he was no longer teaching himself to vote. He was teaching himself not to vote; for he was teaching himself to think of ‘the news’ not as the situation in which he was to act, but as a mere spectacle for idle moments. (An Autobiography. My italics.)
The text is written in a hortatory style. It mixes different levels of abstraction which camouflage the banalities of much of the argument (not that there are no insights - there are). For most of the book Debord is talking about the corporate media, a genuinely new and omniscient power, but he conflates this industry with the entire capitalist system, which he then calls the society of the spectacle; making sure to tell us that he is not just writing about the newspapers and television. He is playing a game. If he wrote just about the media his unoriginality would be obvious. However, to call all social relations “spectacle” is to say something genuinely new. Fortunately such a totalistic vision is a fantasy. Debord, in line with his personality generally, has absolutised a phenomenon that does exist but is not ubiquitous.
The Society of the Spectacle is written by a clever undergraduate for clever undergraduates. It is a book for the sophisticate. It is for those who are intelligent but whose knowledge is slight; especially about philosophy and history. Such characters are very quick to learn formulas; and are easily convinced by portentous abstractions, whose decorative value is high, but whose actual meaning is largely empty. The opening thesis a perfect example.
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
His history is comic book stuff. Debord’s talk about Hegel reminds me of Leszek Kolakowski’s argument that by 1956 Marxism was no longer defined by its intellectual content but by the institutions of the state; creating a culture where certain ideas were taken for granted as absolute truths; such as Dostoevsky was a decadent degenerate and Hegel was the aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution (Der Mensch ohne Alternative). When Collingwood talked about dead history - the kind of thing we find in textbooks - he called it cut-and-paste history. Guy Debord writes cut-and-paste philosophy.
When I finished Society of the Spectacle my first thought was that it was a mystic text written for a religious order; the language a code to unite the initiates (words such as “art”, “proletariat", “spectacle”, “whole” are abstractions to which Debord gives his own peculiar meanings). Later I realised it was a consciously designed myth. And a name began to flicker in the far distance. I hadn’t seen it for years and years. I had almost forgotten it. It is a name that is absent from Andrew Hussey’s biography; and Debord refers to it only once via an innocuous statement which hides, we surmise, its true import. On it rides, closer and closer…
[His] ethic is the ethic of the political sect living in the midst of a continuous crisis, with all the stress on purity and all the fear of contamination by the affairs of this world which mark the sect. It is the ethic of crisis, and it is of a piece with the expectation of an ever deepening crisis which is resolved ultimately only by an apocalyptic transformation in which everything is totally changed…
In the life of a society, there were for [him] only two possibilities: one, decadence, in which the ruling class of politicians and property owners, lacking in self-esteem, corrupted by the niggling procedures of the pursuit and exercise of office, and too cowardly to be violent, resorts to fraud and cunning to control a mass lost in hedonistic self-gratification and individualism; and the other, renascence, in which the aspirants to rule or those already ruling, inflamed with enthusiasm, their minds on remote goals, caring noting for the immediate consequences of any action, but preferring it because it is morally imperative. The latter society is one guided and inspired by the myth - a complex of remote goals, tense moral moods, and expectations of apocalyptic success. Guided by the myth, it is ready for any act of heroic aggressiveness. (Edward A. Shils’ introduction to Reflections on Violence. Italics in original.)
So close... The author is shouting to us. We hear a few words; something about the “infinity" of a "general strike…" Yes! We understand! The self-enclosed wholeness and indeterminacy of a momentary and mythic situation. He comes up to us, and hugs us like a lover.
Georges Sorel. He is the éminence grise behind the Society of the Spectacle and the Situationist International. This explains so much! And suggests an answer to a problem that always puzzled me - the evidence of fascism in the extreme Left particularly from the 1960s. Of course we cannot attribute it all to Sorel, who veered between revolutionary socialism and an authoritarian monarchism, and whose works were an inspiration for Mussolini. Rather he alerts us to that particular mix of primitivist politics that could as easily produce an Adolf Hitler as a Guy Debord.
To read Society of the Spectacle is not to discover the reality of the modern society but to penetrate deep into the mind of a strange and indelibly alienated consciousness. In thesis 218 this mind let’s us go right inside…
Imprisoned in a flattened universe bounded by the screen of the spectacle that has enthralled him, the spectator knows no one but the fictitious speakers who subject him to a one-way monologue about their commodities and the politics of their commodities. The spectacle as a whole serves as his looking glass. What he sees there are dramatisations of illusory escapes from a universal autism.
Debord is projecting his own extreme isolation onto the rest of the world. Of course he was not alone. The successive crises of the 20th century, together with the onrush of a capitalism that seeks to destroy all traditions, is highly to conducive to the rise of such characters, who in more conservative and sedate cultures would be more easily controlled; we imagine Debord as a witchdoctor amongst the Azande.
16. Incredibly thorny topic, of course. Doubly so because in order to freely express our powers (if we could first define them, which is no easy task) we must exercise power; a malignant word for much of Left and Liberal opinion.
For this liberalism, the basic units of political life are not discursive and reflective persons, nor friends and enemies, nor patriotic soldier-citizens, nor energetic litigants, but the weak and the powerful. And the freedom it wished to secure is freedom from the abuse of power and the intimidation of the defenceless that this difference invites…. The liberalism of fear…. (Judith Shklar quoted in Bernard Williams’ In the Beginning was the Deed.* Shklar is writing about public and state power; however, given the private and individual bias of much contemporary discussion, such “liberalism of fear” easily seeps into talk about private life.)**
A useful corrective are the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche; his work the best example, to my mind, about both the creativity and the responsibilities of power. Since the 1960s much of the Left have misunderstood its complex nature; and have retreated into a rather simple-minded reaction against it. All power is a bad thing, is the usual reflexive reply. One result of such foolishness is seen in the confusions of this play; where Martin uses the language of equality and women’s rights to oppress his wife.
To restrict someone’s power is itself an exercise of power; a problem that Liberals and the Left often ignore. Power has many faces… Language, for example, is one. The language of liberty has been continually used to oppress others; it is a classic weapon in the conflict between the classes; one that riddles particularly socialist history. Vicky is a good example. She may actually be disempowering Lin by quoting The Female Eunuch at her. Indeed, I would argue that she is doing just that; Vicky is exposing Lin to ideas that she lacks the cultural capability to understand, express or enact. After her confusion frustration and resentment will naturally follow. Bernard Williams is especially good on such intricacies.
* Shklar’s formulation also highlights a major problem with this approach. Notice how easily “the weak" elides into “the defenceless”. Too often the weak are deemed weaker and the powerful more powerful than they actually are. The result: a new tribe is formed that must mediate between them; thereby acquiring its own power which it claims to use to protect the victims from the oppressors. One way to look at the 20th century is to see the emergence of a tribe who used progressive politics to shape the culture and run the state in its own image. Who is this tribe? you ask. It is the professional bourgeoisie. For a magnificent history of their rise and partial fall see Harold Perkin’s The Rise of Professional Society: England Since 1880.
** For the dangers of conflating the public with the private see my The Temperate Zone.
17. Bernard Williams makes a useful distinction between “primitive freedom”, which means lack of all constraint, and liberty, which is a political value acquired through engaged activity in the public realm. When I write of freedom I am thinking mostly of the latter definition.
In private life “primitive freedom” is the more appropriate term. One of the difficulties of exercising our powers is that it involves free activity in both the public and private realms. As such it can rightly be perceived by actors in both spheres as threatening and dangerous. To be free is to live a difficult and conflicted life. It will always contain elements of struggle; as there will be moments when we must behave like the public man at home and the private individual at work; polluting both with alien concepts. It is a reason why so much talk about freedom is empty. Although such discourse has inevitably changed the word’s meaning. We see this in Churchill’s play: there are times when freedom is been reduced to a single meaning - to fuck who you desire.