Monday, February 25, 2013

When neoconservative heroes perish posted by lenin

McDonald's had better sign me up for an advertising campaign, because I am loving itNewsweek, having mysteriously overlooked my previous work, has just reviewed UnhitchedNewsweek is massive; therefore I am massive.  Fuck Bono.  Fuck Bob Geldoff.  The next Live 8 is hosted by me.  And what a review.  It is the most deliciously splenetic fanboy tribute to unreasoning hysteria that it has ever been my pleasure to gloat about.  I wasn't prepared for an opportunity like this, but I won't pass it up all the same.

This reviewer, like every reviewer of Unhitched in the liberal media thus far, outs himself as a votary of the Hitchens personality cult.  "Hitchens was a friend, mentor and neighbor of mine," he writes, as if to reassure the reader of his objectivity in this matter.  He is also, in the interests of fuller disclosure, a neoconservative writer for the Weekly Standard - just the sort of bargain basement intellectual company that Hitchens kept in his last decade.  If Unhitched is written in the style of a 'prosecution', this review is an indicment.  What am I charged with?  In a series of increasingly shrill non-sequiturs, I am condemned for every seditious affront to empire ever confected: anti-Americanism, apologia for the bad guys, sympathy for the devil, etc.  For example, I have placed myself "on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta", because I deemed the British war an imperialist one.  Oh, well.  Sorry about that.  For no obvious reason, I am also deemed to believe that "a noble anti-imperialism inevitably arises out of anti-Americanism", whatever the latter term means.  Again, duly chastened.  

But there's much, much worse.  "Seymour routinely defends, excuses, and minimizes the depredations of the two classes of people whom Hitchens loathed most: dictators and Islamists."  He does not!  Does he?  "Muammar Gaddafi’s ruthless crushing of any dissent was nothing more than an “inability to allow any form of organized opposition,” as if his jailing dissidents was tantamount to dyslexia."  Well, I don't need any more proof than that.  The reviewer even quotes this Seymour to damn him out of his own mouth.  What more could one need?  With regard to the Rushdie affair, I am belaboured for describing "a rather straightforward argument between the right to publish and religious totalitarianism" as "a far more nuanced “saga” that “was saturated with these meanings and could not be limited to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.”"  I'm not sure how I should respond to the charge of being nuanced, but - how tantalising this review is: "these meanings" just left hanging like that!  What are they?  Oh, just stuff.  Proceeding:  "Seymour is either ignorant or lying when he writes that “the editorials and clerical bluster in Iran had yielded little.”"  This may or may not be a fair criticism, but it isn't a criticism of me.  In this quoted statement I am merely and explicitly summarising Hitchens's own rebuke to the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, written in 1999, in which he assailed the hysterical 'clash of civilizations' mythology that treated every threatening editorial or sermon as proof of a coming cataclysm.

Nevertheless, let it pass.  The outrages continue to mount.  "Seymour elsewhere mocks Hitchens, along with anyone else who viewed with alarm the murder of 3,000 Americans".  At this point, levity has to stop.  There are some things one simply doesn't joke about.  I am certainly not rolling my eyes and hugging myself with laughter at this point.  Seriously, what did this tasteless mockery consist of?  Well, I criticised Hitchens for "conjur[ing] a civilizational challenge out of a handful of combatants with box cutters."  In my defence, if you think that needs a defence, Hitchens's claim to have been exhilarated by the events of that day really don't suggest that alarm was his dominant response.  Further, as the reviewer must have noticed, Hitchens was himself the first to belittle such alarm.  It's "not that terrifying", he claimed.  "That kind of thing happens in a war, it has to be expected in a war, if you’re in a war you’re gonna lose a building or a plane, and maybe a small town or a school or – you should reckon about once a week. Get ready for it."  Suddenly sounding so much more like Daniel Pipes, and so much less like his urbane critic from only a few a years before.

What else?  The reviewer is aggrieved that I repeat "the paranoid claim of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez ... that an attempted 2002 coup d’état was “US-supported,” in spite of the fact that there exists no evidence to support such a claim."  He has a habit, this pundit, of using the words 'no evidence' in the most eccentric way.  The most generous translation of it is: 'no evidence that I would be remotely interested in looking at'.  Still, it has the dignity of being a point of view, or rather a point of non-view.  Other eccentric misuses of language:  "Hitchens believed that “Halliburton has as much right as anyone else to take over Iraq’s oil (since Iraqis plainly could not be trusted with it themselves),” Seymour alleges."  I suppose I do 'allege' this inasmuch as I cite Hitchens's words to this effect, with an accompanying footnote.  Mark the sequel: "Such wording suggests that, under the reign of Saddam Hussein, regular Iraqis had any say over their country’s munificent oil resources."  Is.  That.  Right?

Predictably enough - which is not to say with tiresome inevitability - some of Hitchens's fans take greatest umbrage at the point, made in the prologue, that their immortal paladin was a habitual plagiarist.  I don't make a big deal of it, but this reviewer considers it the most serious claim in the whole book.  "Seymour provides no evidence to substantiate his scandalous claims", he expostulates.  There's that phrase again: 'no evidence'.  "For instance, Seymour writes that “a great deal of his work on Bill Clinton’s betrayal on health care was lifted” from another journalist, yet in the footnotes concedes, “In fairness, Hitchens credited [said journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition of No One Left to Lie To,” Hitchens’s salvo against the 42nd president."  Now, as the reviewer would know, having scrupulously read Unhitched from first recto to final verso, the point is that the credit was not given until after Sam Husseini had cried foul about the original plagiarism.  Further, other plagiarisms in the same book remained intact - as could be gleaned from the same footnote from which the reviewer cited.  And, as far as I'm aware, there was no such rectification of, for example, the plagiarism of Chomsky and Herman in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a case that the reviewer simply ignores.

"Seymour also alleges" - that word 'alleges' again - "that “one reviewer has already detected plagiarism in the case of large tranches of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man,” yet the review in question, while certainly negative, actually states that “there is of course no question of plagiarism” by Hitchens."  Since I've seen this elsewhere, can I at least make the obvious point that Barrell was taking the piss?  The quoted statement should be given in full: "Although Hitchens’s debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of ‘heavy-footed’, for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop’".  Need I underline the point?  Or do I have to explain what plagiarism is?  The reviewer concludes: "As for other examples of what he claims to be Hitchens’s “many plagiarisms,” Seymour offers nothing."  Here, 'nothing' is synonymous with the author's previous use of the term 'no evidence'.

Now this reviewer must ask himself: would mummy and daddy be proud?  I don't think so.  Being so silly and telling little porkie-pies?  That's an open invitation for mister hand to take a short, sharp trip to botty-land.  You know, a cliche in many of these affronted reviews, as they labour to be condescending, is that Unhitched is the product of some desperately earnest polemicist, unleavened by irony or humour, someone who treats political difference as an unpardonable sin.  I beg to differ. It is the fans who, in their undignified idolatrous zeal, manifestly can't take a joke, or brook serious criticism.  But then, isn't that the condition of fandom, almost by definition?

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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On 'male privilege' posted by lenin

Of course I profoundly disagree with the language of 'privilege' for reasons I've given many times before.  The discourse seems inadequate to the complex realities of racial, gender, and national inequalities for example.  It also tends, in concrete politics, toward an unhelpfully moralistic language - checking your privilege, and so on.  However, I don't think one should be afraid of it.  Not just for macho reasons - though it's true that I am quite a big boy now, and can stand to hear things I disagree with.  Rather, like many problematic-yet-persistent concepts, getting at something real.  And when 'male privilege' and its effects are raised in this context, to explain how implicitly sexist assumptions can be reproduced without much thought, it does seem to be addressing a real problem.  (This is not a comment on Owen Jones; I'm speaking generally). 

I am reminded of Stuart Hall's discussion of the implicit 'white eye' view in the media.  It is not that every white person equally shares in this point of view, or is equally responsible for it, or is equally implicated in it.  Far from it.  This implied perspective arises from complex sets of ideological representations that are largely produced in the ideological state apparatuses by the ruling class and its allies.  Naturally, since ideology is a field of struggle and contest, these ideological representations must also incorporate 'popular' elements if they are to be effective.  But the 'white eye' is not the 'eye' of an essential 'whiteness'; it is the 'eye' of an historically produced mode of domination from which a minority of ruling white men derive most of the benefit.  

The 'white eye' is not what is seen, moreover.  It is outside the frame, but seems to shape everything in it: a present-absent cause, it exerts a gravitational pull around which a discursive field of racist assumptions is organised.  The implied perspective, simply because it is implied and never explicated, forms a 'common sense' so that those articulating it speak with great assurance.  The onus is on those disputing it to disprove its assumptions - to prove that immigrants aren't deviants and leeches, the black families are not dysfunctional sources of crime, that 'Islam' is not a particular solvent of values or security menace, etc.

So it might be with 'male privilege' referred to in this sense.  Adapting Hall, one might speak of "those apparently naturalised representations of events and situations relating to sex and gender, whether 'factual' or 'fictional', which have sexist premisses and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions" and which "enable sexist statements to be formulated without ever bringing into awareness the sexist predicates on which the statements are grounded."  It is obviously not the case that this 'malestream' perspective is one simply shared by all men, and no women.  The 'male eye' view is one organised around gender stereotypes that subordinate women, the 'second sex', in a way that benefits a determinate class of men.

What is called 'rape culture', which has been the focus of the recent radicalisation of women's struggles, is but one particularly obnoxious variant of this phenomenon.  Take some of the usual tropes: "women ask for it sometimes"; "only bad girls get raped"; "women get raped because they get drunk and show off their bodies"; "women cry rape because they've been jilted, or have something to hide"; "women's bodies, if they genuinely don't want sex, shut down". Underlying these are various fundamental gender binaries: male activity vs female passivity; male rationality vs female hysteria; male seriousness vs female deviousness; and so on.

Notably, these tropes mostly don't explicitly condone rape.  Rather I think they can be related to the three categories of denial identified by Stan Cohen: 1) literal denial, wherein it is asserted that no such thing happened, and the woman must be a liar, a fantasist or unwell; 2) interpretive denial, wherein some of the facts are admitted, but it's suggested that in context it's not as bad as it seems, because the woman was drunk, or drugged, or is likely a prostitute, or was dressed provocatively; and 3) implicatory denial, where it's admitted that the facts are as they're said to be, and very bad indeed, but, well, there's nothing that can be done about it anyway, rape is just a part of life, the best thing is for women concerned is to dress down, not stay out late, not drink, etc.  Things are much worse overseas, anyway: you're lucky you don't live there.  The result of such strategies of denial is to mobilise implicit assumptions about women into a story, as narrated from a 'male eye' view, which normalises and naturalises rape, and blunts the force of any challenge to it.

It would be grotesque to say that enabling the perpetuation of rape thereby preserves or protects any 'privilege' for men.  But clearly the gendered tropes that are pressed into the service of rape culture are bound up with the ostensible compensations of 'maleness', this 'psychological wage' as Du Bois put it in a different context.  Of course, these compensations are not simply 'psychological'.  They are an iteration at the level of ideology of various realities - the wage gap, male household dominance, the orientation of mass culture toward encouraging women to be 'man-pleasing', and so on. In the total, longer-term view, all of these realities actually cost men.  The wage gap, for example, is part of maintaining a stratified labour system that undermines the bargaining strength and political cohesion of labour, and thus reduces the overall wage claims of both men and women.  But social interests are always construed through social representations, and one might say that the implied 'male eye' view of a great deal of mass media and academic output provides the appropriate grid through which these compensations can be perceived and lived as a real privilege.

This 'psychological wage', which some might still prefer to call 'male privilege', is necessary to explain the investment that too many people have in these strategies of denial, which otherwise serve to reinforce a deeply harmful pattern of sexual violence and hypocrisy, a combination of prurience and puritanism that leaves no one better off.  Necessary, I should add, but not sufficient.

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Friday, February 08, 2013

WaPo reviews Unhitched posted by lenin

Well, give me credit for foresight at least.  Having heard that the Washington Post was about to review Unhitched, I told my audience on Wednesday "this will be hatchet job, especially if the paper has anything to do with DC, which was Hitchens's spiritual home".  Nonetheless, as I also said, one doesn't balk.  This is the first time a major newspaper in the US has even bothered to look at one of my books, and the sales will soar irrespective of what the review says.

So, let's see:

The author — a Marxist writer and activist born in Northern Ireland and living in London — has done his research, apparently having read almost everything his subject ever wrote, but in the service of the narrow goals of the over-zealous prosecutor.

Ah.  A Marxist.  Over-zealous.  Here we go.

But, as frequently occurs in this book, Seymour insists on advancing his argument from solid ground onto very thin ice. Hitchens’s reversal on Bosnia — from arguing that the outside world should do nothing about ethnic cleansing and the barbaric siege of Sarajevo to forcefully arguing for intervention against “Serbian and Croat fascists acting in collusion” — is cast as an immoral capitulation to American imperialism. So, too, is his call for humanitarian intervention to prevent the massacre of Kurdish refugees at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, another stance one would think that a leftist animated against right-wing tyranny would applaud.  

Well, there you are.  The Strident Marxist Who Went Too Far.  I'm sure there's a Stieg Larsson-style book series in this.  Let's see.  The Strident Marxist Who Didn't Go Too Far Enough.  The Strident Marxist Who Went Too Far Enough, Took Pictures, Came Back and Mailed Them To Your Mama.  This is starting to turn into something.  I might email Verso about this idea.  Anyway, all this finger-wagging would be easier to take without giggling if it wasn't so obvious that the reviewer begrudgingly liked the book but just couldn't bring himself to say so.

Anyway, far from complaining about this, I'm grateful.  Thank you, glorious imperial masters, for your belated attention to my work.

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Statement of the Democratic Renewal Platform posted by lenin

Latest on International Socialism blog:

We welcome the formation of a faction which recognises the widespread discontent within the party. We declare our intention to join immediately, and invite others to do so.
 
In recent weeks, the lack of leadership from the Central Committee (CC) over a very serious crisis concerning the handling of sexual harassment and rape allegations has been compounded by a hostile approach towards internal criticism. It is clear that these criticisms are not limited to a tiny minority, but come from broad spectrum of comrades across the country.
 
Regrettably, the CC’s attempt to provide a perspective thus far has been limited to blaming internal critics, the left beyond the party, and the right-wing media for the crisis. This is a political failure, insofar as it results from a shocking failure to apply our sexual politics, and has revealed a serious deficit in party democracy. But it is also an untenable strategy that risks doing irreversible damage to the party’s standing in the movement. And it damages our ability to work within united fronts and alongside others on the left.
 
The motion carried at the recent National Committee meeting unfortunately serves not to solve this crisis but to deepen it. The attempt to curtail democratic rights to call a special conference, and threaten disciplinary action against comrades opposed to the present CC strategy, must be opposed. We also oppose the ill-founded expulsions of four comrades over this issue before conference.
For all these reasons, we welcome the creation of a broad, united faction. And we support any project that aims to promote a genuinely democratic, tolerant culture in the party.
We pledge to work constructively inside the faction for its declared aims, and urge other comrades to join and work alongside us.
We also call for a special conference at which to address the issues raised by the faction. The purpose of the conference should be to identify and correct those aspects of our work that have led to the current situation, not only organisational structures but also failures in long-term analysis and perspective. We believe it must include in its remit the issues of party democracy and the structure and practices of the Disputes Committee. It must allow a full pre-conference period with internal bulletins to allow for the most thorough debate. The right to call such a conference is guaranteed by the constitution and we refuse to accept any arbitrary time constraints placed upon this.
Further to these points we would also like to suggest that our crisis points to severe internal deficiencies that urgently need to be remedied.
First and foremost, we must rectify the culture wherein female comrades could be so badly treated, and the term ‘feminism’ used as a term of abuse for those who object. We as a party have nothing to fear from a serious political and theoretical engagement with feminism as it exists today. We should therefore, in addition to examining the processes that led to our present crisis, work on developing and updating our traditional perspectives on women’s oppression, and women’s liberation.
Second, this crisis may be the most the severe we have experienced in recent years, but it certainly isn’t the first. In the last ten years alone the party has been hampered by the Respect split, the split with what is now Counterfire, and the later split with what is now the International Socialist Group. We believe these crises are the culmination of deep-seated problems in our long-term perspective, and our methods of organisation, problems which we have never fully addressed or resolved. We will work constructively alongside other comrades in the coming period to address these fundamental issues.
In our view, the combination of a large full-time apparatus, a Central Committee that frequently resorts to bureaucratic means in order to assert its authority, and the way in which the various party bodies are elected, serves to produce a mostly unchanging leadership which is able to hold the monopoly on the development of perspectives. This restricts the space in which to develop alternatives.
Third, there is an ungrounded fear of frank public debate in the party. The entrenched scepticism about the internet, though justifiably repudiating cyber-utopianism, is symptomatic of this phobia. Whereas the party once published internal bulletins in the Socialist Review, we now worry about comrades carrying on debates on social media. Worse, some comrades mistakenly think that such debate is the major cause of our crisis. Full and open debate is actually the way out of the crisis. We regard the diverse contributions from comrades to the International Socialism blog, for example, as a sign of health. It demonstrates a desire to develop alternative perspectives honestly and openly.
 In a way, the CC has been right: this argument is about the sort of party that we want to build. The party aspires to be part of a mass party that can lead the working class. Such leadership would be impossible on the basis of secrecy and paranoia, since this necessarily excludes the class from the party’s debates and decision-making.
As Tony Cliff wrote in 1960: 
 “Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership.”

We are the Democratic Renewal Platform. Please join us.

internationalsocialisttendency[at]gmail[dot]com


Adam  Brixton 
Aidan  Sheffield North 
Alaina  Sussex & Brighton 
Alan  Edinburgh 
Alex  Oxford
Alice, Edinburgh
Amy  Oxford 
Andy  Leicester 
Andy  Hackney East 
Ben  Barnsley 
Caroline  Stoke-on-Trent 
China  Brent & Harrow 
Chris  Sussex & Brighton 
Ciara  Tower Hamlets 
Danny  Man Met SWSS / Rusholme 
Dave  Nottingham 
Dave  Brixton 
Emma  Norwich 
Esther  Euston 
Frances  Portsmouth 
Gareth  Camden 
Gary  Stoke-on-Trent 
Glenn  Newcastle 
Gonzalo  Euston 
Hannah  Brighton 
Jack  Leeds Central 
Jackson  Sheffield South 
Jamie   Euston 
Jamie   Manchester Rusholme 
Jamie  Tottenham 
Jennifer  Wandsworth & Merton 
Jennifer  Hackney East 
Jess  Sussex & Brighton 
John  Euston 
Jules   Liverpool 
Kaity   Portsmouth 
Katrina  Wigan 
Keith  Canterbury 
Kieran  Camden 
Kris  Wandsworth & Merton 
Lewis  Sussex & Brighton 
Linda  Edinburgh 
Luke  Edinburgh 
Martin  Sussex & Brighton 
Martin  Sheffield South 
Matt  Nottingham 
Matthew  Bristol North 
Naomi  Canterbury 
Nathan  Oxford 
Neil   Edinburgh 
Paul   Leicester 
Raymond  Edinburgh
Richard  Bristol East
Richard  Hornsey and Wood Green 
Rob  Sheffield South 
Sheldon  Barnsley
Steffan, Swansea
Thom  Sheffield South 
Tom  Manchester Rusholme 
Tom  Leicester 
Toni  Bristol South 
William  Canterbury
In addition, the platform is supported by and in turn supports our four comrades currently appealing against their expulsion:
Adam
Charlotte
Paris
Tim 

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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Launching Unhitched posted by lenin

Tomorrow, Housman's Bookshop, at 7pm, I'll be giving a talk to launch the new paperback, Unhitched.  This will be fun.  You should definitely come.

Bear in mind there's been a degree of success with this book already, to the extent that it set out to wind up the belligerati, the unhitched.  Having never exchanged two words with them before, I suddenly find to my delight that my name has been taken in vain by both Nick Cohen ("puffed up political hack", "totalitarian") and David Aaronovitch (who consigns me to "Tosserdom").  I think this may not be a coincidence, comrades.  Obviously, Harry's Place have taken umbrage, which I can always rely on them to do.  That moronic ultra-Blairite Indy columnist has apparently been dreading the thought of having to read it, but was spared the burden by Fred Inglis's dopy review.  And the less said about the culture editor of the New Statesman, the better.

If you haven't read the book, you might not understand why the Hitchens fans are tearing their hair out about it.  I'll tell you why right now: it's because the argument in the book is unanswerable, and it puts a big black mark on all the pro-war, Islamophobic ideologues.  Don't believe me?  Come tomorrow, and I'll give you a demonstration.

Update:  This went very well.  A few of the unhitched came.  The Harry's Place nutter turned up.  But they were surprisingly quiet throughout.  I did get a few challenging questions, but they were more interesting than trolling.  And this was the audience, looking all interested.


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Marxism and McLuhan posted by Roobin


A People’s History of the World, by Chris Harman, is a fascinating and wonderful book. Something interesting happens around halfway through however. The story of Absolutely Everything changes; things like settled agriculture, irrigation and the printing press and so on, drop away. The last few hundred years expand massively and the tale becomes much more about wars, Jacobins, syndicalism and such like. This is very appropriate. The bourgeois revolution in its broadest sense is the dawn of public life, the awakening of mass consciousness and all that it has entailed until this point.

But we must go back a step. Being determines consciousness. Our mode of being is altered by the inventions through which we live. The clock, for example, alters our sense of time. Under capitalist relations it bourgeoisifies our sense of time. Under capitalism time is money. Through the clock face it is converted from peasant, analogue flow into measurable capitalist quanta. This is just an example.

There is relatively little in the Marxist canon that deals with the effects of new media. The Marxist who paid closest attention to this question was Walter Benjamin. Excellent groundwork though his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is it is also short and aphoristic. It was also written prior to several major developments in mass media.

I would like to introduce to you all a philosopher, not a Marxist, but someone whose ideas can extend and enrich our discussion and study in the area of culture and technology. Marshall McLuhan.

A short biography 

Marshall McLuhan was born in 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta. His father was a real-estate businessman, his mother was a schoolteacher. His father enlisted in the Canadian armed forces in 1915. After his discharge the McLuhan family settled in Winnipeg. Young Marshall enrolled in the University of Manitoba there in 1928.

Marshall McLuhan was a bit of a polymath. He started out academic life studying engineering before switching to English Literature, a subject at which he excelled. In 1937 he moved to Cambridge in England, where he was required to repeat some of his undergraduate studies. He did however some of the eminent New Critics, I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis. New Criticism was a movement that emphasised close textural reading. McLuhan studied both William Shakespeare and James Joyce in immense detail; as a result he was one of those rare people who could quote Finnegans Wake in the course of an argument. It was also at Cambridge that he would come to convert to Catholicism. In his academic career he mostly taught in Catholic Colleges.

All of this is to say he was not a revolutionary figure. However his focus changed when he began teaching Communication and Culture seminars, funded by the Ford Foundation. He carved out an academic niche of his own, starting with the book The Mechanical Bride, examining technology and popular culture, quite different subject matter to the (I would argue) closed and cold world of the New Critics. This led to the foundation of the University of Toronto McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology in 1963.

He was not completely closed to the world of politics. His aphoristic, collage style of writing and his non-judgemental openness toward new forms of communication lent itself to post-war youth culture. While McLuhan was a friend of right-wing author Wyndham Lewis, he was also an associate of Timothy Leary and is credited with coining the hippie slogan, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.

McLuhan’s arguments and aphorisms have proven massively popular and influential. His speaking-style, especially in front of non-academic audiences, was playful and thought provoking. They are important for us I think because they help stimulate thought often about things we take for granted. Mass culture and its role within bourgeois hegemony is a crucial question for Marxists in advanced, core capitalist countries. Mass media profoundly determine the shape and form of mass culture.

The ideas I present here from the beginning of McLuhan’s most famous work, Understanding Media. First of all:

The medium is the message

“It is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”.

It is not exactly an aphorism, but it is a neat segment of Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy with an important implication. Ideology is reasonably defined as a collection of ideas based around a distinct point of view. The argument here suggests ideology is the medium of class consciousness.

In the clash between forces and relations of production, the basis of class struggle, people can achieve things which are contrary to the ideas they hold. This was something Antonio Gramsci dwelt upon in his Prison Notebooks repeatedly. The achievements of the Biennio Rosso were not capitalised upon because there was not sufficient critical renovation of ideas; long story short, the workers rebellion was not translated into a workers state.

Ideology is the medium of class consciousness and, as we know, the medium is the message. The key benefit of Marshall McLuhan’s media studies was the spotlight he shone on the media themselves, media as physical objects, and the effects they have. For example, (in this case David Sarnoff, pioneer American broadcaster) people often advise that the “products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value”. McLuhan responded:

“Suppose we were to say, ‘Apple Pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way that it is used that determines its value’. Or ‘the Smallpox Virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way that it is used that determines its value’. Again, ‘Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way that they are used that determines their value’.


A useful point for consideration, the ideology of Protestantism helped found capitalism. Not because of some supposed work-ethic, plenty of harsh toil had been carried before anyone pondered the nature of a personal god, but because its dispute with Catholicism over humanity’s relationship to the divine was in effect an argument over the individual’s relationship to authority. “No King But Jesus” is a roundabout call for a republic.

But why does this matter? One of the crucial questions about ideology, and specific ideologies, is why do they arise when they do? As Frederick Engels pointed out, early socialism was utopian because:

“What was wanted was the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and who understands the truth. That he has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chains of historical development, but a mere happy accident. He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and might then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering”.

So, Protestantism didn’t just happen to rise up during the feudal era to attack it, it arose out of the feudal era, part of it but against it (and eventually to be supplanted by more advanced articulations of bourgeois ideology). There is no debate about a personal versus an impersonal god without print technology and the beginnings of mass literacy. There are no ideas apart from the means of articulating them.

We live in the medium of Earth’s atmosphere. We do not notice it because our bodies are evolved to live at around sea-level pressure; we live at the very bottom of an ocean of air. You can only get a handle on this when you climb a large mountain, get into a submarine or board a spacecraft. We exist, in a similar way, in a state of media saturation, to the point where we do not regard the effects such media have upon us.

We tend not to notice the dominant ideology, the collection of ideas based around the point of view of the dominant class in our society. It is only when we are outside that medium that we see it for what it is. McLuhan’s strength is that he looks at the effect of technology on consciousness. It is easy to accept that electronic media creates almost instant global communication, and thereby bridges the gap between cause and effect, core and periphery in the public mind. You can extrapolate from this. We have lived through a period of growing gated bourgeois communities, increasingly militarised policing, the enclosure of more and more public space, and so forth. The mass media batters away, the poor are dangerous, deracinated and, look, they're living among us. It’s all very logical.

But there is one clear problem with techno-determinism. Take something like the Canary Wharf Complex in
East London. To the bourgeois Londoner it is a sleek monument to their power. The working class Londoner on the other hand would be forgiven if they found it a cold, bewildering and unwelcoming place (built upon the ruins of a former trade union stronghold let’s not forget). Technology, mass media live inside the greater medium of class society; that is the message carried to us, everywhere, all the time.

Hot and cold media

Hot and cold media are important concepts for McLuhan. ‘Hot’ and ‘cold’ are slightly misleading names. The basic opposition is between high definition/low participation and low definition/high participation media. It is, say, the difference between a live action film and a drawn animation. With live action the visual detail is fairly rich, leaving little room for the viewer to fill in/interpret. With a drawn cartoon (a good example being Matt Groening animations) there is minimal visual information, few lines, few surfaces, and wide room for viewer inference.

Why should hot and cold media bother us? I think, firstly, because it is a useful way to track cultural development. Ruling classes attempt to develop culture appropriate to its rule. This means that culture is a site of conflict in class society. In Understanding Media, McLuhan at one point cites the example of the waltz (a ‘hot’ dance) versus the twist (a ‘cool’ dance).

Dance is an expression of sexuality. The waltz, a formal dance, where the information is largely filled in beforehand, was consistent with early capitalism and its attempt to mould sexuality to the nuclear family and capital accumulation. The twist is an informal dance, with room to improvise and, most dangerously of all, does not require two closely locked partners. The twist and related forms of dance were consistent with a period of affluence and immanent sexual liberation. They were consequently terrifying to authorities committed to the capitalism and sexual propriety. Let’s not forget the added bourgeois horror of mixed race social dancing. It may seem unbearably strange and backward now but American cops used to attack Ray Charles concerts for precisely this reason (brilliantly evoked in Mike Davis’s writings on post-war youth riots).

But there’s a second point of interest. In McLuhan’s scheme new media cause a shock to our system. In order to overcome this shock, so we aren’t sent reeling every time we walk down the street or glance at a TV, we numb ourselves to the medium’s effects. One way of doing this is by cooling down the medium.

The printed word is visually hot. Spoken word on the radio is aurally hot. They each take particular senses and fill them out. One thing you will not have missed is the rise of right-wing demagogy in the internet and talk radio. These are cooling media that allow for greater participation; but this participation is as a kind of reflective surface in an echo chamber. Slanders become rumours and rumours become facts, as host and audience goad each other.

This can create false notions that are very difficult to dispel. An example: after the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes the Metropolitan Police put out a number of statements that simply weren’t true: he jumped the barrier, he was wearing a suspicious device, he challenged the police, he looked like Hussein Osman, etc. These claims were recycled through public forums and consequently longer in people’s minds even after they were disproved.

What is ideology, the medium itself; hot or cool? As far as the question is relevant I would suggest it is a cool medium, participatory. For example: The Conservative Party is a key outlet for bourgeois ideology. The party cannot win general elections on the vote of its social base, the bourgeoisie, alone. There is a Conservative Party for big capitalists, but there is also one for small business people, there is even a party for a minority of conservative workers. This can only be achieved by incorporating the concerns, the points of view of other groups into the broader bourgeois perspective of the Tories.

The point here is not to suggest hot, cold or cooling media are better, worse, beneficial or pernicious, but to understand them so we are not taken by surprise by their effects.

From narcosis to awakening

McLuhan’s best known writing is more about aphorism and argument than precisely laid out research. This is particularly the case with the opening chapters of Understanding Media. There are two chapters, which run together smoothly, The Gadget Lover and Hybrid Energy. McLuhan begins his argument by retelling the myth of Narcissus.

The myth is generally understood as a warning against self-love, Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection. According to McLuhan this is not quite the intention of the story. Narcissus was transfixed by his reflected image and so became numb to all other stimuli, a closed circuit.

All media are extensions of particular human aspects; the wheel is an extension of the foot, the lever an extension of the arm, clothing an extension of the skin, and so forth. Human invention is a response to need generated by discomfort; the wheel relieves the burden of moving objects, the lever the burden of lifting them, clothes keep us from being cold (or sunburned).

Any new invention is a greater or lesser shock to human relations. A neat illustration, from Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital:

“In districts where natural economy formerly prevailed, the introduction of means of transport – railways, navigation, canals – is vital for the spreading of commodity economy… The triumphant march of commodity economy thus begins in most cases with magnificent constructions of modern transport, such as railway lines which cross primeval forests and tunnel through the mountains, telegraph wires which bridge the deserts, and ocean liners which call at the most outlying ports”.


The latter chapters of the Accumulation of Capital are a meditation on the various media used to establish a commodity economy in various colonies, including the medium of ballistic weaponry. Colonialism is a rather sharp example but the point stands, changes in the medium of human existence require changes in the way people relate to each other.

On an individual level the shock of change leads to numbness, what might have been disturbing to your ancestors you have to take in your stride. Imagine, for example, your journey to work. You would never get there if you had to regard every single advert trying to catch your attention. This shutting down of the senses blinds us to the effect of various media. Back to the original example, ideology; we do not recognise mainstream ideology as such. Even so the supposedly non-ideological person is in fact the most ideological.

We only recognise a medium for what it is when it is either hybridised or superseded. An example from art is the journey from painted portrait to lithograph to photograph, to moving image, to synchronised sound, to Technicolor. Each invention cried out for the following one. As each medium was superseded it was transformed, the obvious example being after the rise of photography artists began painting concepts and feelings, rather than literal objects.

Another example: we now know that novels are in fact movie scripts. Every successful novel is touted to movie producers as a sure-fire hit (that or it’s cherished as an unfilmable novel). Movies are not novels, however. They almost never make the journey backwards. If anything movies are becoming role-playing computer games, judging by the number of spin-offs that have been made.

Relating this back to the point about ideology; we overcome our numbness to bourgeois ideology, see it for what it is, through its supersession (or, perhaps, hybridisation if we take reformism into account). This of course happens through practical action, class struggle, combined with the critical renovation of consciousness.

Challenge and Collapse

McLuhan’s legacy, if it is anything, is a techno-evangelism, in part an offshoot of the counter-culture (McLuhan was also the first person to use the word “surf” in its modern sense); computing will save the day the internet will broaden our minds, liberate information and the geeks shall inherit the Earth.

One very modern off-shoot of this philosophy is the argument (distraction in my opinion) over the role of social media in popular rebellion. Does the application of Twitter to 21st century society result in occupations, riots and strikes? It's certainly a more comforting conclusion than admitting people over the world are tired, poor and fed up with living under their rulers.

But McLuhan was not a member of the 60s counter-culture. He was an educator, an educator with a very keen sense of the crisis in education, which arose out of post-war society and came to be known as the Generation Gap.

Capitalism needed an educated, skilled workforce more than ever. Educational opportunities grew and millions of young people growing up in the core capitalist countries for the first time had the chance to go into Higher Education, therefore reaping the rewards of a better life. At the same time the rigorous application of capitalist norms to a formerly artisan-like HE system generated conflict, conflict between the new mode of intellectual production and the relations of production. The lecturer was slowly proletarianised. The student, promised intellectual liberation, was subjected to fusty, paternal supervision and backward rules. For example: the student struggle in France 1968, which set off the great strike in May, began as a struggle over the right of male students to visit female dorms overnight.

McLuhan was a lecturer during this period of change. He experienced the shift when he began teaching. Though only a few years older than his students, he felt an insurmountable gap between him and them. The difference, he thought, was in the mode of understanding. He was steeped in the literate, sequential and disinterested mode of thought. His students were saturated by modern media and its effects. Their understanding was post-literate, non-linear and deeply involved.

He saw this as the root of the conflict, the crisis of education (and of society at large). It was this he studied. His solutions were humane, intellectual and appropriately utopian – more designed to provoke debate rather than resolve it. His answer was critical reflection, we had to understand the changes we were going through as a society in order to cope with them. Cutting edge thought, and in particular art were to lead the way.

The Marxist response is clear. Firstly, culture is ambiguous. For human history so far every document of civilisation has also been a document of barbarism. In order to have Socrates you also had to have slaves. The prevailing culture of any class society is determined by that society's ruling class, their prerogatives, their preoccupations. An obsolete way of thinking does not simply give way to critical reflection, which brings us onto the second point; consciousness has its basis in material reality. As Marx pointed out in his Theses on Feuerbach, criticism of heaven takes place on earth.

I want to conclude with two quotes, from Challenge and Collapse, the final chapter of the opening section of Understanding Media, one which Marxists should find intriguing:

“Perhaps the most obvious “closure”... of any new technology is just the demand for it. Nobody wants a motorcar until there are motorcars, and nobody is interested in TV until there are TV programmes”.

This is a close relation to the Marxist observation that a society does not create problems for which it does not already have solutions. There is no solution to bad weather therefore it is not a problem. There is a solution to poor harvests, to food speculation and starvation. These things are problems. While McLuhan's solutions may be technocratic, we can accept what he is saying here. But, McLuhan continues:

“The power of technology to create its own world of demand is not independent of technology being first an extension of our own bodies and senses. When we are deprived of our sense of sight, the other senses take up the role of sight in some degree. But the need to use the senses that are available is as insistent as breathing - a fact that makes sense of the urge to keep radio and TV going more or less continuously. The urge to continuous use is quite independent of the ‘content’ of public programmes... It is ridiculous to talk of ‘what the public wants’ played over its own nerves... Once we have surrendered our senses and nervous systems to the private manipulation of those who would try to benefit from taking a lease on our eyes and ears and nerves, we really don't have any rights left”.


This is a vital point that we can all agree with. However you define 'the media', broadly or narrowly, they are our mode of existence, alienated from us and used against us. We take them back under our control in order to emancipate ourselves.

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Sunday, February 03, 2013

Opuscular: a perfectly cromulent expression posted by lenin

Now look, if a Times drudge is going to review Unhitched, the least he could do is hack my emails and try to find out what the book is about.  Sadly, but predictably, the pattern with Hitchens's acolytes is to entirely ignore the book's contents, to the point of being conspicuously vacuous.  The winning formula: a series of genuflections to the deceased sandwiched between petulant and pissy observations about the book's uppity author that, one supposes, are intended to put him back in his box.  One example will suffice, since it happens to be among the few minor points where the book's contents are discussed:

The worst thing about Seymour’s book is that he thinks he writes as well as Hitchens, with embarrassing consequences. It may be true that Hitchens’s book on Thomas Paine was not his finest, but would anyone with English as a first language suggest it should be classed as “a somewhat opuscular component of the Hitchensian oeuvre”? 

Heartbreaking stuff.  In response to this scathing indictment, I can only offer two defenses.  The first is that the sentence fragment quoted is both written in perfect English, and uses its adjectives appropriately.  That is, the searing rhetorical question fails by inviting the obvious answer: "yes".  The second is that in the original, the quoted words are embedded in a discussion of Hitchens's tendency to plagiarise other works.  The main point being made about the book on Paine, is that much of it is plagiarised.  I don't make much of this fact, or claim any originality in making it.  But it happens to be a fact, and a rather more salient one than that which gets the reviewer's dander up.  You see what I mean: they'd rather talk about anything than the contents of the book.

Another salient fact, I suppose, is that I'm getting an intimate education in both sides of the old saw that there is no such thing as bad publicity.  On the one hand, there plainly is.  I think this point needs no elaboration.  On the other, every spittle-lathered review of Unhitched by one of the unhitched actually results in a gratifying improvement in the book's sales figures.  I'd like to see much, much more of this.  But I'd also like a proper review by someone who has read the book.

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